The 3 Secrets to Retiring Early

You’ve likely read articles about people retiring early. Is it possible for you, and if so what will it really take? First let’s establish the age at which most people retire. According to a 2016 Smart Asset survey, most people retire between the ages of 62 and 65. By age 63, half of adults are no longer working.

The definition of early retirement can be pretty subjective. You cannot draw from Social Security until age 62, but under certain circumstances you can begin withdrawing from your 401(k) at age 55 (age 50 if you’re a public safety employee like a firefighter). So for the purposes of this conversation we’ll peg early retirement as any age before 50.

The key to retiring early? Low expenses, no debt, and high income.

Retiring early is no easy feat, and in most situations it will require several events to occur, some of which you may not have control over. In the vast majority of cases you will need to keep your current cost of living extremely low, earn a high salary, and have little to no debt. These barriers automatically make it harder for the 44 million Americans with student loan debt; the class of 2016 alone had an average of about $37,000 in loans.

Though debt always plays a factor, cost of living may be the biggest hurdle to overcome on your path to early retirement. Peter Adeney, who runs a very popular financial blog called Mr. Money Mustache, retired at 30 and has become one of the most popular names behind the FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) movement. (Pete does not reveal his last name to media to protect his family’s privacy).

But he is hardly kicking back at an island villa sipping cocktails all day. According to an interview in MarketWatch, his family of three subsists on $25,000 per year in Longmont, Colo. Not everyone is able (or willing) to cut back their expenses to fit under such a low threshold. Where you choose to live can determine how much of your income you can save. MagnifyMoney recently analyzed over 200 U.S. cities to find the best and worst places to retire early.

Choosing the right career with a high salary on the front end can be a huge boost, Travis and Amanda of the blog Freedom with Bruno saved $1 million by 30 and retired to Asheville, N.C., according to Forbes. Thanks to a career in tech they were earning a combined income of $200,000. Jeremy of Go Curry Cracker, who made nearly $140,000 per year at Microsoft, saved 70% of his income, and lived on less than $2,000 per month, also retired at 30. It is also important to know that Pete and his wife (mentioned earlier) were also in the tech industry.

Not everyone can relocate to an inexpensive region of the country due to their job or the need to be close to their family, nor do most Americans have the privilege of a six-figure salary, but there are some great lessons that can be applied to your situation, no matter your income or age.

What you would need to retire early

Regardless of salary, debt, or cost of living, having a clear and defined goal is what gives people the confidence to retire early. Without it, they wouldn’t know the amount needed to leave their jobs. You will need to know how much you should be saving toward retirement each year and how much you will need while in retirement. Bankrate has a free retirement calculator here to help you visualize your retirement savings.

The typical rule of thumb is to live off of 4% of your total retirement savings. If you can live comfortably off of $40,000 per year in retirement, you would need about $1 million by the time you retire. If you could live comfortably off of about $25,000, you would only need about $600,000; this is what Pete from Mr. Money Mustache saved when he retired. Another easy way to get to that number is by multiplying your ideal retirement income by 25. So someone needing $55,000 in retirement would need $1,375,000. Once you figure out what you would be comfortable living on, you’ll need to select quality, low-cost investments. For many early retirees this comes in the form of index funds.

If you’re looking into cutting your cost and putting more toward retirement, you may have to get creative or put some serious efforts into increasing your income. This may include keeping a car on the road that’s 19 years old, cooking for every single meal, or moving in with your adult siblings to pay off your debts. Early retirement will require serious commitment and discipline. If you’re in the right position to do it, then this may be the path for you.

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Guide to Choosing the Right IRA: Traditional or Roth?

The Roth IRA versus traditional IRA debate has raged on for years.

What many retirement savers may not know is that most of the debate about whether it’s better to contribute to a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA is flawed.

You’ve probably heard that young investors are better off contributing to a Roth IRA because they’ll likely be in a higher tax bracket when they’re older. You’ve probably also heard that if you’re in the same tax bracket now and in retirement, a traditional IRA and Roth IRA will produce the same result.

These arguments are part of the conventional wisdom upon which many people make their decisions, and yet each misses some important nuance and, in some cases, is downright incorrect.

The Biggest Difference Between Traditional and Roth IRAs

There are several differences between traditional and Roth IRAs, and we’ll get into many of them below.

The key difference is in the tax breaks they offer.

Contributions to a traditional IRA are not taxed up front. They are tax-deductible, meaning they decrease your taxable income for the year in which you make the contribution. The money grows tax-free inside the account. However, your withdrawals in retirement are treated as taxable income.

Contributions to a Roth IRA are taxed up front at your current income tax rate. The money grows tax-free while inside the account. And when you make withdrawals in retirement, those withdrawals are not taxed.

Whether it’s better to get the tax break when you make the contribution or when you withdraw it in retirement is the centerpiece of the traditional vs. Roth IRA debate, and it’s also where a lot of people use some faulty logic.

We’ll debunk the conventional wisdom in just a bit, but first we need to take a very quick detour to understand a couple of key tax concepts.

The Important Difference Between Marginal and Effective Tax Rates

Don’t worry. We’re not going too far into the tax weeds here. But there’s a key point that’s important to understand if you’re going to make a true comparison between traditional and Roth IRAs, and that’s the difference between your marginal tax rate and your effective tax rate.

When people talk about tax rates, they’re typically referring to your marginal tax rate. This is the tax rate you pay on your last dollar of income, and it’s the same as your current tax bracket. For example, if you’re in the 15% tax bracket, you have a 15% marginal tax rate, and you’ll owe 15 cents in taxes on the next dollar you earn.

Your effective tax rate, however, divides your total tax bill by your total income to calculate your average tax rate across every dollar you earned.

And these tax rates are different because of our progressive federal income tax, which taxes different dollars at different rates. For example, someone in the 15% tax bracket actually pays 0% on some of their income, 10% on some of their income, and 15% on the rest of their income. Which means that their total tax bill is actually less than 15% of their total income.

For a simple example, a 32-year-old couple making $65,000 per year with one child will likely fall in the 15% tax bracket. That’s their marginal tax rate.

But after factoring in our progressive tax code and various tax breaks like the standard deduction and personal exemptions, they will only actually pay a total of $4,114 in taxes, making their effective tax rate just 6.33% (calculated using TurboTax’s TaxCaster).

As you can see, the couple’s effective tax rate is much lower than their marginal tax rate. And that’s almost always the case, no matter what your situation.

Keep that in mind as we move forward.

Why the Conventional Traditional vs. Roth IRA Wisdom Is Wrong

Most of the discussion around traditional and Roth IRAs focuses on your marginal tax rate. The logic says that if your marginal tax rate is higher now than it will be in retirement, the traditional IRA is the way to go. If it will be higher in retirement, the Roth IRA is the way to go. If your marginal tax rate will be the same in retirement as it is now, you’ll get the same result whether you contribute to a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA.

By this conventional wisdom, the Roth IRA typically comes out ahead for younger investors who plan on increasing their income over time and therefore moving into a higher tax bracket or at least staying in the same tax bracket.

But that conventional wisdom is flawed.

When you’re torn between contributing to a traditional or Roth IRA, it’s almost always better to compare your marginal tax rate today to your effective rate in retirement, for two reasons:

  1. Your traditional IRA contributions will likely provide a tax break at or near your marginal tax rate. This is because federal tax brackets typically span tens of thousands of dollars, while your IRA contributions max out at $5,500 for an individual or $11,000 for a couple. So it’s unlikely that your traditional IRA contribution will move you into a lower tax bracket, and even if it does, it will likely be only a small part of your contribution.
  2. Your traditional IRA withdrawals, on the other hand, are very likely to span multiple tax brackets given that you will likely be withdrawing tens of thousands of dollars per year. Given that reality, your effective tax rate is a more accurate representation of the tax cost of those withdrawals in retirement.

And when you look at it this way, comparing your marginal tax rate today to your effective tax rate in the future, the traditional IRA starts to look a lot more attractive.

Let’s run the numbers with a case study.

A Case Study: Should Mark and Jane Contribute to a Traditional IRA or a Roth IRA?

Mark and Jane are 32, married, and have a 2-year-old child. They currently make $65,000 per year combined, putting them squarely in the 15% tax bracket.

They’re ready to save for retirement, and they’re trying to decide between a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA. They’ve figured out that they can afford to make either of the following annual contributions:

  • $11,000 to a traditional IRA, which is the annual maximum.
  • $9,350 to a Roth IRA, which is that same $11,000 contribution after the 15% tax cost is taken out. (Since Roth IRA contributions are nondeductible, factoring taxes into the contribution is the right way to properly compare equivalent after-tax contributions to each account.)

So the big question is this: Which account, the traditional IRA or Roth IRA, will give them more income in retirement?

Using conventional wisdom, they would probably contribute to the Roth IRA. After all, they’re young and in a relatively low tax bracket.

But Mark and Jane are curious people, so they decided to run the numbers themselves. Here are the assumptions they made in order to do that:

  • They will continue working until age 67 (full Social Security retirement age).
  • They will continue making $65,000 per year, adjusted for inflation.
  • They will receive $26,964 per year in Social Security income starting at age 67 (estimated here).
  • They will receive an inflation-adjusted investment return of 5% per year (7% return minus 2% inflation).
  • At retirement, they will withdraw 4% of their final IRA balance per year to supplement their Social Security income (based on the 4% safe withdrawal rate).
  • They will file taxes jointly every year, both now and in retirement.

You can see all the details laid out in a spreadsheet here, but here’s the bottom line:

  • The Roth IRA will provide Mark and Jane with $35,469 in annual tax-free income on top of their Social Security income.
  • The traditional IRA will provide $37,544 in annual after-tax income on top of their Social Security income. That’s after paying $4,184 in taxes on their $41,728 withdrawal, calculating using TurboTax’s TaxCaster.

In other words, the traditional IRA will provide an extra $2,075 in annual income for Mark and Jane in retirement.

That’s a nice vacation, a whole bunch of date nights, gifts for the grandkids, or simply extra money that might be needed to cover necessary expenses.

It’s worth noting that using the assumptions above, Mark and Jane are in the 15% tax bracket both now and in retirement. According to the conventional wisdom, a traditional IRA and Roth IRA should provide the same result.

But they don’t, and the reason has everything to do with the difference between marginal tax rates and effective tax rates.

Right now, their contributions to the traditional IRA get them a 15% tax break, meaning they can contribute 15% more to a traditional IRA than they can to a Roth IRA without affecting their budget in any way.

But in retirement, the effective tax rate on their traditional IRA withdrawals is only 10%. Due again to a combination of our progressive tax code and tax breaks like the standard deduction and personal exemptions, some of it isn’t taxed, some of it is taxed at 10%, and only a portion of it is taxed at 15%.

That 5% difference between now and later is why they end up with more money from a traditional IRA than a Roth IRA.

And it’s that same unconventional wisdom that can give you more retirement income as well if you plan smartly.

5 Good Reasons to Use a Roth IRA

The main takeaway from everything above is that the conventional traditional versus Roth IRA wisdom is wrong. Comparing marginal tax rates typically underestimates the value of a traditional IRA.

Of course, the Roth IRA is still a great account, and there are plenty of situations in which it makes sense to use it. I have a Roth IRA myself, and I’m very happy with it.

So here are five good reasons to use a Roth IRA.

1. You Might Contribute More to a Roth IRA

Our case study above assumes that you would make equivalent after-tax contributions to each account. That is, if you’re in the 15% tax bracket, you would contribute 15% less to a Roth IRA than to a traditional IRA because of the tax cost.

That’s technically the right way to make the comparison, but it’s not the way most people think.

There’s a good chance that you have a certain amount of money you want to contribute and that you would make that same contribution to either a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA. Maybe you want to max out your contribution and the only question is which account to use.

If that’s the case, a Roth IRA will come out ahead every time simply because that money will never be taxed again.

2. Backdoor Roth IRA

If you make too much to either contribute to a Roth IRA or deduct contributions to a traditional IRA, you still might be eligible to do what’s called a backdoor Roth IRA.

If so, it’s a great way to give yourself some extra tax-free income in retirement, and you can only do it with a Roth IRA.

3. You Might Have Other Income

Social Security income was already factored into the example above. But any additional income, such as pension income, would increase the cost of those traditional IRA withdrawals in retirement by increasing both the marginal and effective tax rate.

Depending on your other income sources, the tax-free nature of a Roth IRA may be helpful.

4. Tax Diversification

You can make the most reasonable assumptions in the world, but the reality is that there’s no way to know what your situation will look like 30-plus years down the road.

We encourage people to diversify their investments because it reduces the risk that any one bad company could bring down your entire portfolio. Similarly, diversifying your retirement accounts can reduce the risk that a change in circumstances would result in you drastically overpaying in taxes.

Having some money in a Roth IRA and some money in a traditional IRA or 401(k) could give you room to adapt to changing tax circumstances in retirement by giving you some taxable money and some tax-free money.

5. Financial Flexibility

Roth IRAs are extremely flexible accounts that can be used for a variety of financial goals throughout your lifetime.

One reason for this is that your contributions are available at any time and for any reason, without tax or penalty. Ideally you would be able to keep the money in your account to grow for retirement, but it could be used to buy a house, start a business, or simply in case of emergency.

Roth IRAs also have some special characteristics that can make them effective college savings accounts, and as of now Roth IRAs are not subject to required minimum distributions in retirement, though that could certainly change.

All in all, Roth IRAs are more flexible than traditional IRAs in terms of using the money for nonretirement purposes.

3 Good Reasons to Use a Traditional IRA

People love the Roth IRA because it gives you tax-free money in retirement, but, as we saw in the case study above, that doesn’t always result in more retirement income. Even factoring in taxes, and even in situations where you might not expect it, the traditional IRA often comes out ahead.

And the truth is that there are even MORE tax advantages to the traditional IRA than what we discussed earlier. Here are three of the biggest.

1. You Can Convert to a Roth IRA at Any Time

One of the downsides of contributing to a Roth IRA is that you lock in the tax cost at the point of contribution. There’s no getting that money back.

On the other hand, contributing to a traditional IRA gives you the tax break now while also preserving your ability to convert some or all of that money to a Roth IRA at your convenience, giving you more control over when and how you take the tax hit.

For example, let’s say that you contribute to a traditional IRA this year, and then a few years down the line either you or your spouse decides to stay home with the kids, or start a business, or change careers. Any of those decisions could lead to a significant reduction in income, which might be a perfect opportunity to convert some or all of your traditional IRA money to a Roth IRA.

The amount you convert will count as taxable income, but because you’re temporarily in a lower tax bracket you’ll receive a smaller tax bill.

You can get pretty fancy with this if you want. Brandon from the Mad Fientist, has explained how to build a Roth IRA Conversion Ladder to fund early retirement. Financial planner Michael Kitces has demonstrated how to use partial conversions and recharacterizations to optimize your tax cost.

Of course, there are downsides to this strategy as well. Primarily there’s the fact that taxes are complicated, and you could unknowingly cost yourself a lot of money if you’re not careful. And unlike direct contributions to a Roth IRA, you have to wait five years before you’re able to withdraw the money you’ve converted without penalty. It’s typically best to speak to a tax professional or financial planner before converting to a Roth IRA.

But the overall point is that contributing to a traditional IRA now gives you greater ability to control your tax spending both now and in the future. You may be able to save yourself a lot of money by converting to a Roth IRA sometime in the future rather than contributing to it directly today.

2. You Could Avoid or Reduce State Income Tax

Traditional IRA contributions are deductible for state income tax purposes as well as federal income tax purposes. That wasn’t factored into the case study above, but there are situations in which this can significantly increase the benefit of a traditional IRA.

First, if you live in a state with a progressive income tax code, you may get a boost from the difference in marginal and effective tax rates just like with federal income taxes. While your contributions today may be deductible at the margin, your future withdrawals may at least partially be taxed at lower rates.

Second, it’s possible that you could eventually move to a state with either lower state income tax rates or no income tax at all. If so, you could save money on the difference between your current and future tax rates, and possibly avoid state income taxes altogether. Of course, if you move to a state with higher income taxes, you may end up losing money on the difference.

3. It Helps You Gain Eligibility for Tax Breaks

Contributing to a traditional IRA lowers what’s called your adjusted gross income (AGI), which is why you end up paying less income tax.

But there are a number of other tax breaks that rely on your AGI to determine eligibility, and by contributing to a traditional IRA you lower your AGI you make it more likely to qualify for those tax breaks.

Here’s a sample of common tax breaks that rely on AGI:

  • Saver’s credit – Provides a tax credit for people who make contributions to a qualified retirement plan and make under a certain level of AGI. For 2017, the maximum credit is $2,000 for individuals and $4,000 for couples.
  • Child and dependent care credit – Provides a credit of up to $2,100 for expenses related to the care of children and other dependents, though the amount decreases as your AGI increases. Parents with young children in child care are the most common recipients of this credit.
  • Medical expense deduction – Medical expenses that exceed 10% of your AGI are deductible. The lower your AGI, the more likely you are to qualify for this deduction.
  • 0% dividend and capital gains tax rate – If you’re in the 15% income tax bracket or below, any dividends and long-term capital gains you earn during the year are not taxed. Lowering your AGI could move you into this lower tax bracket.

Making a Smarter Decision

There’s a lot more to the traditional vs. Roth IRA debate than the conventional wisdom would have you believe. And the truth is that the more you dive in, the more you realize just how powerful the traditional IRA is.

That’s not to say that you should never use a Roth IRA. It’s a fantastic account, and it certainly has its place. It’s just that the tax breaks a traditional IRA offers are often understated.

It’s also important to recognize that every situation is different and that it’s impossible to know ahead of time which account will come out ahead. There are too many variables and too many unknowns to say for sure.

But with the information above, you should be able to make a smarter choice that makes it a little bit easier to reach retirement sooner and with more money.

The post Guide to Choosing the Right IRA: Traditional or Roth? appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

Term vs Whole Life Insurance

If you’re shopping for life insurance, there are two main types you’ll likely encounter: term life insurance and whole life insurance.

Depending on who you talk to, you’ll hear different arguments for and against both types, which can make it difficult to figure out which type of life insurance will provide the right protection for you and your family.

This guide breaks it all down so that you can make the best decision for your specific situation.

What Is the Purpose of Life Insurance?

Before getting into the debate over term versus whole life insurance, let’s take a step back and remind ourselves why life insurance is important to begin with.

While there are some rare exceptions, life insurance primarily serves one main purpose: to provide financial protection to people who are financially dependent upon you.

In other words, life insurance makes sure that there will always be money available for the people who depend on you financially, even if you’re no longer there to provide for them.

A good example of this is a couple with young children. A toddler obviously cannot support herself financially, and life insurance makes sure that there would be financial resources to care for her no matter what happens to the parents.

Other examples of financial dependents might include a spouse who would struggle to handle all the bills on his or her own, or parents who have co-signed for your student loans.

So before you start thinking about which type of life insurance you need, ask yourself the following two questions to better understand why you’re getting life insurance at all:

  1. Is there anyone who would struggle financially without your support? If not, you probably don’t need life insurance.
  2. If so, for how long will they be dependent upon you? Is it a fixed time period or is it relatively permanent?

Your answers to those questions will help you sort through the term versus whole life insurance debate with a clearer, more personal viewpoint.

The Basics of Term Life Insurance

Term life insurance is coverage that lasts for a set amount of time, typically 5-30 years. Once that period is up, the policy expires and your coverage ends.

That expiration may sound like a problem, but it’s actually similar to most other types of insurance. Things like auto insurance and homeowners insurance are typically annual policies that have to be renewed each year, and you would cancel your coverage if you no longer had a need. Similarly, term life insurance is meant to provide coverage only for as long as you actually need it.

Let’s look at the pros and cons.

The Benefits of Term Life Insurance

It’s Inexpensive

Term life insurance is typically the most cost-effective way to get the protection you need. In fact, it’s often 10 times less expensive than whole life insurance for the same amount of coverage, especially if you’re relatively young and healthy.

The main reason for the price difference is that term life insurance eventually expires, meaning it has a smaller chance of paying out. And again, that may look like a downside, but…

The Coverage Period Lines Up with Your Need

Most people only have a temporary need for life insurance. Your kids will eventually grow up and be self-sufficient. Your spouse can eventually rely on retirement savings and Social Security income. Your joint debt will eventually be paid off.

Term life insurance provides financial protection for the amount of time that you need it and no more. You should hope it doesn’t pay out, because that just means that you didn’t die early. Like your car insurance, it’s good to have in case of an emergency, but the best case scenario is never having to file a claim.

In addition, if for some reason your situation changes and you no longer need life insurance, you can simply cancel your term life insurance policy and be done with it. Again, it’s coverage for as long as you need it and no more.

It’s Easy to Shop Around

Term life insurance policies are fairly simple and therefore pretty generic. As long as you’re looking at insurance companies with a strong financial rating, you can largely shop on price alone.

My two favorite sites for comparison shopping for term life insurance policies are PolicyGenius and Term4Sale, both of which only list policies from reputable companies.

For example, using the Term4Sale quote engine, a 34-year-old nonsmoking male in New York City with “Preferred” health status could get a $1 million 30-year term life insurance policy for as little as $939.98 per year or as much as $1,255.30 per year. And again, because term life insurance is fairly generic, you can compare those premiums with the confidence that your policy would be just as good either way.

You Can Typically Convert to Whole Life

What happens if you end up needing life insurance coverage longer than you originally thought? Since term life insurance eventually runs out, wouldn’t that be a problem?

It is a risk, but most term life insurance policies allow you to convert your policy to whole life insurance without medical underwriting as long as you do it before the policy expires. Your premium would increase significantly upon such a conversion, reflecting the increased liability the insurance company is taking on by providing permanent coverage. And if for some reason your policy did require medical underwriting at the time of conversion, there would be the risk of an even bigger premium increase if your health has declined since you originally got the policy.

Not all policies have this conversion feature, but those that do remove the risk that you wouldn’t be able to get permanent coverage later on if you need it.

The Downsides of Term Life Insurance

It’s More Expensive as You Get Older

Term life insurance is typically inexpensive if you’re relatively young, but it gets more expensive as you get older, especially if you’re looking at policies with longer terms. And the reason is simply that your odds of dying increase as you age, which means the insurance company faces a bigger risk.

For example, a 54-year-old male looking for the same $1 million, 30-year term life insurance policy we mentioned above is looking at an annual premium of $5,894 to $6,780 per year.

If you’re in your 50s or above and looking for life insurance, a term policy may or may not end up being a cost-effective way to get it.

It May Not Last as Long as You Need

Life is hard to predict, and it’s certainly possible that you end up needing life insurance for longer than you originally expected. If that happens, your term life insurance policy likely won’t have a lot of flexibility that allows you to extend it, beyond converting it to whole life.

There are also some insurance needs for which permanent protection is simply better. Those are rare, but we’ll talk about them below.

The Basics of Whole Life Insurance

Whole life insurance has two primary features:

  1. It provides permanent coverage, meaning that it will never expire as long as you continue to pay the premiums.
  2. It includes a savings component that builds up over time and can eventually be used for a variety of purposes.

There are several types of whole life insurance that have slightly different features and serve different purposes, like universal life insurance, variable life insurance, and equity-indexed life insurance. For the purposes of this article we’ll focus on the basic whole life insurance that most people will come across, and for the most part, all of the following pros and cons would apply no matter which type you’re talking about.

The Benefits of Whole Life Insurance

It Can Handle a Permanent Need

If you have a permanent or indefinite need for life insurance, whole life insurance is the way to get it.

For example, if you have a child with special needs who will likely be dependent upon others for his or her entire life, whole life insurance may make sense. Or if you will have multiple millions of dollars to pass on to your heirs, whole life insurance can help with estate taxes and preserve your family’s wealth.

Most people don’t have these kinds of permanent needs, but if you do, then whole life insurance can be valuable.

It Can Be a Form of Forced Savings

For people who struggle to consistently save money, whole life insurance can be a way to force yourself to build long-term savings while also providing financial protection.

It may not be the most efficient savings account, as we’ll talk about below, but having some savings is better than having none, and the savings you do accumulate can be withdrawn for any reason. Taxes are also deferred while the money is inside the account, which can be a benefit for high-income earners who have already maxed out their other tax-advantaged savings accounts.

It’s Can Be Structured to Meet Your Goals

If you work with a life insurance professional who really knows what they’re doing, you can specially structure a whole life insurance policy to serve specific purposes.

For example, if your main goal is permanent life insurance protection, you can structure it to minimize the savings component and make that protection as cheap as possible. If your main goal is to build savings, you can structure it to minimize other costs and front-load your contributions to grow your savings as quickly as possible.

If you can find a life insurance agent who’s willing to work with you in a fiduciary capacity, meaning they put your interests ahead of their own, you can get fairly creative and structure your whole life insurance policy to meet your specific needs.

The Downsides of Whole Life Insurance

It’s Expensive

Whole life insurance is an expensive way to get the financial protection you need. For example, remember the 34-year-old male who would pay $939.98 per year for a $1 million 30-year term life insurance policy? According to LLIS, a team of independent insurance advisers, a $1 million whole life insurance policy for the same individual would be $11,240 per year. That’s 12 times more expensive for the same amount of coverage. (Though, to be fair, for a longer coverage period.)

There are also a lot of hidden fees that add to the cost, from the sizable commission paid to the agent who sells you the policy to the management fees associated with the policy’s savings account.

Unless you truly have a permanent need for coverage, whole life insurance is probably not the most cost-effective way to get it.

Most People Don’t Have a Permanent Need

The simple fact is that most people don’t have a need for permanent life insurance coverage. As your children age and your savings grow, the financial impact of your death decreases until there’s little to no risk.

It might be nice to know that whole life insurance will eventually pay out, but is that something you need? And if not, is it worth paying those big premiums over all those years instead of putting that money elsewhere?

Don’t be fooled into thinking that your insurance has to pay out for it to be valuable. If you don’t have the need for permanent coverage, you shouldn’t pay for it.

It’s Not an Efficient Savings Vehicle

The savings component of whole life insurance might sound attractive, but the truth is that it’s not an especially efficient way to save money.

It takes a long time for the cash value to build up. It’s often 7-10 years just to break even, and even over long periods of time in the best of circumstances the return is likely to be low.

Not only that, but withdrawals from your account are actually loans, meaning you’re typically charged interest for the right to use your own money. Can you imagine if your savings account at the bank charged you interest each time you took money out?

Finally, unlike other savings accounts where you can simply decide to pause or decrease your contributions for a while if you hit a rough patch, your whole life insurance premiums are due like clockwork no matter what. Your policy can lapse if you fail to pay your premiums, losing you both the protection you need and the savings you’ve built up.

The truth is that unless you’ve already maxed out all your other tax-advantaged savings accounts — like your 401(k), IRAs, health savings accounts, and 529 accounts — the tax benefits of saving within a life insurance policy likely aren’t worth it. And even then you may be better off using a taxable brokerage account, depending on your specific goals and circumstances.

Which Type of Life Insurance Is Right for You?

If you’re purely looking for the financial protection that life insurance provides, and if your need is temporary, then term life insurance is likely the best option for you. It’s the cheapest way to get the protection you need, leaving more room in your budget for your other goals and obligations.

And for most people, quite honestly, that’s the end of the discussion. Most people don’t have a need for permanent coverage and will be better off putting their savings elsewhere, like regular savings accounts for short-term needs and dedicated retirement accounts for long-term investments.

But there are a few situations in which some kind of whole life insurance can make sense.

If you have a truly permanent need for life insurance, such as a child with long-term special needs, then a whole life insurance policy specially designed to provide the protection you need at the lowest cost possible may be well worth it.

And if your income is very high and you’re already maxing out all other tax-advantaged investment accounts, a whole life insurance policy can be a way to get some additional tax-deferred savings. Again, you’d ideally want it to be specially designed to minimize fees and maximize the amount that goes toward savings.

In any case, remember to focus on the reason why you’re getting life insurance in the first place and to make decisions around that need. The right type of life insurance will likely be pretty clear as long as you keep your personal goals at the forefront.

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How to Pay for Uber and Lyft Rides With Your Employee Commuter Benefits

Ride-share users, your employee commuter benefits package just got a little better. Earlier this year, Lyft became the latest ride-sharing app to give riders the chance to pay using employee commuter benefits.

That means riders can now use pre-tax dollars to pay for Lyft rides the same way commuter benefits can be used to cover transit costs or parking expenses. Lyft isn’t the first ride-sharing app to add commuter benefits — Uber beat them to it back in August — but Lyft’s addition of commuter benefits signals a trend that could save big-city commuters time and money on the way to work each day.

Right now, it’s not possible for workers to use commuter benefits to pay for regular cabs — including regular Uber or Lyft rides. But Uber and Lyft found a clever way around this. Benefits can be used when riders select Lyft Line or uberPOOL, the apps’ carpooling options.

If you’re curious about this benefit and whether or not it’s worth linking your Uber or Lyft account to your commuter benefit account, we’ve got you covered.

What are commuter benefits?

Commuter benefits are an employer-provided benefits program that lets you set aside pre-tax dollars in an account to be used for your commute costs. Employees can use these benefits to pay for public transportation — trains, subways, buses, even parking passes — used on their daily commute with pre-tax dollars. The amount of money you set aside to pay for your commute doesn’t count as income, so you’re not taxed on it.

Which benefits programs are included?

Each ride-hailing service has partnered with select benefits programs, although there is some overlap. For example, if your company’s benefits package is with Zenefits or TransitChek, you can use them with Lyft, but not with Uber. On the other hand, if you are with EdenRed or Ameriflex, you can only pay with your benefits on the Uber app. The lucky commuters with benefits under WageWorks, Benefit Resource and Navia can use their benefits on either rideshare app.

How do I sign up for commuter benefits?

Workers have to sign up for commuter benefits in order to receive them. You will be asked to select how much money you want to set aside from your paycheck each month to cover your transportation costs.

Once you’re enrolled, you may receive a benefits card (it can be used like a regular debit or credit card) to make transportation purchases. Otherwise, you can purchase transportation expenses using your regular credit or debit card and then submit a claim to be reimbursed through your benefit provider.

Reach out to your employer’s human resources department to find out how to take advantage of your commuter benefits program.

How much can I really save?

Depending on your current tax bracket, you could have up to 40% more to spend on your commute. For example, if you’re in the 35% tax bracket and contribute $200 each month to your commuter benefits account, you’re getting an extra $70 to spend on your commute each month. That’s an extra $840 per year.

But here’s the catch: Commuter benefits contributions are capped at $255 per month. So if you are already relying on your benefits to finance your monthly subway pass or parking garage expenses, you may not have much left over to use on Lyft or Uber rides.

What are Lyft Line and uberPOOL?

To use commuter benefits to pay for Lyft or Uber rides, you have to select the apps’ carpooling options — either Lyft Line or uberPOOL. Carpool vehicles seat six or more passengers. Both Uber and Lyft use algorithms to place riders going toward the same area together. Because you’re carpooling, however, you may or may not have a shorter commute, depending on traffic in your city and how many other riders get picked up or dropped off during your trip.

How to use commuter benefits on Lyft

First, you need to add your commuter benefits card to your profile.

  1. When you open the Lyft app, tap “Payment” in the left-hand side menu to see your payment options.
  2. Select “Add credit card,” enter your commuter benefits card information, and save. The card will have a “Commuter” distinction.
  3. Next, set the card as your default payment method. There are two ways to do this:
    1. Select the card as your default payment method for your personal profile under the “payment defaults” section in the “Payment” menu.
    2. When you open the app, set your location and destination. You’ll then see the last four digits of the card is being used to pay for the trip. Tap the numbers to change your payment method to your commuter benefits card. You should see a rectangular icon with a diamond in its center when using your benefits card.
    3. Select “Lyft Line & Ride.”
      You can only use your benefits to pay for carpools under Lyft Line. Select the pooling option to be matched with a car with six or more seats, and you’ll be all set.

How to use commuter benefits on Uber

Add your commuter benefits card to your profile by going to the left-hand menu and adding your commuter benefits card under “Payment.” You can also add the card after setting your location and destination under uberPOOL, shown below.

Tap on your card information to set or add your commuter card as a payment option.

Your benefits can only be used to pay for carpools under uberPOOL. Select the pooling option to be matched with a car with six or more seats, and you’ll be good to go.

Pros

Using pre-tax dollars saves you up to 40%

The most obvious perk of using your commuter benefit is that you’re using pre-tax dollars, so your dollar goes up to 40% further. If you’re already paying out of pocket for your commute, this could be a huge benefit.

Cut back on driving

If you drive to work, a 2014 Trulia analysis found you likely spend about 30 minutes in the car each way. If it’s more affordable for you to use a ride-sharing app, you can use that time to read or catch up on work or a nap while you ride.

Reduce your carbon footprint

Legally, commuter benefits can only be used with efforts to reduce your commuter footprint, so ride-sharing counts only when you’re placed in a car that seats six or more passengers. If you drive to work, this cuts down your footprint and takes the hassle out of organizing a carpool.

Cons

Lyft Line or uberPOOL only

You may want to put your pre-tax dollars elsewhere if you’re not into making new friends each morning. You’ll be placed in a vehicle that seats six or more people when you use your benefits card, and other riders may have various personality types.

Limit on contribution

Your contribution is limited to $255 a month, which may or may not be a month’s worth of commuting, depending on how much your commute costs. For example, a LendingTree analysis found the average monthly cost of commuting with Uber’s non-pool service UberX in New York City is more than $700. Still, $255 pre-tax will help cut down on your monthly spending for the trip to work.

Only available in select major cities

The apps’ commuter benefits options are only available in select major cities so far. Here’s a breakdown of where you can use yours.

Lyft: New York City, Boston, Seattle, and Miami

Uber: New York City, Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Denver, Atlanta, Miami, Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, and New Jersey (state).

The post How to Pay for Uber and Lyft Rides With Your Employee Commuter Benefits appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

What Is Mortgage Amortization?

Mortgage concept by money house from the coins

Owning a home can feel good. But is it a good financial decision?

There’s a lot that goes into answering that question, and one of the biggest factors is something that sounds both incredibly boring and incredibly confusing: mortgage amortization.

It’s not the sexiest financial topic in the world, but it has a big impact on your personal finances. In this post we’ll break it down so that you understand what it is and how it should factor into your decision about whether to buy a house.

What Is Mortgage Amortization?

Each time you make your monthly mortgage payment, that payment is split between paying interest and paying down principal (reducing your loan balance). Amortization is simply the process by which that split is calculated.

See, your payment isn’t split the same way throughout the life of your mortgage. It’s actually different with each payment, with your earliest payments going primarily toward interest.

For example, let’s say you buy a $250,000 house, put 20% down, and take out a 30-year, $200,000 mortgage with a 4% interest rate. That means your monthly payment would be $955.

To calculate how much of that first payment goes toward interest, you simply divide the interest rate by 12 to get a monthly interest rate and multiply that by your outstanding loan. Here’s how it looks in this example:

  • (4% / 12) * $200,000 = $667

That means $667 of your initial mortgage payment is used to pay off interest, while the remaining $288 reduces your mortgage balance to $199,712.

Next month the same calculation is run again, but this time with your slightly lower mortgage balance. That leads to a $666 interest payment and $289 going toward reducing your loan.

And that’s how it works. Your early payments are primarily used to pay interest, but over time it slowly shifts so that more and more of your monthly payment is used to reduce your mortgage balance.

You should receive an amortization schedule when you apply for a mortgage, and you can also run the numbers yourself here: Zillow Amortization Calculator. This will show you exactly how much of each payment goes toward interest, how much goes toward principal, and how much interest you’ll pay over the life of the loan.

What Does That Mean for You?

Okay, great, so you have the technical explanation for how mortgage amortization works. But how is that actually relevant to you? Why should you care?

There are two big implications to keep in mind as you consider whether or not to buy a house.

The first is this is one of the reasons it often requires you to stay in your house for several years before your home purchase pays off versus renting. People often talk about renting as if you’re “throwing money away,” but they forget that you’re doing something very similar in those early years of your mortgage as well.

Remember, those interest payments you’re making, which are the majority of your early mortgage payments, aren’t building equity in your home. That money is going straight to your lender and will never be yours again. It usually takes a while before your home equity really starts to grow.

The second is buying a house costs much more than most people realize. Take the example above. You might think of it as just a $250,000 purchase, but when you include all the interest you pay over the life of that 30-year mortgage, the total cost rises to $393,739.

And that doesn’t even include the cost of homeowners insurance, property taxes, repairs, upgrades, and everything else that comes with owning a home.

The bottom line is buying a house is expensive, and in many cases renting is actually a better financial move, especially if you aren’t committed to staying in the house for an extended period of time. You can run the numbers for yourself here: New York Times buy vs. rent calculator.

How to Combat Amortization

To be clear, mortgage amortization isn’t a bad thing. It’s just how mortgages work, and it’s important to understand so you can evaluate the true cost of buying a house.

But if you’d like more of your money to go toward principal sooner, and therefore decrease the amount of interest you pay, there are a few ways to do it.

The first is to put more money down when you buy the house. That down payment is immediate equity in your home that will not be charged interest.

The second is to make extra payments and make sure they go toward paying down principal. You will have to double-check your mortgage’s specific terms, though, to make sure there aren’t any prepayment penalties or other clauses that would make this a bad idea.

And the third is to take out a 15-year loan (or other shorter term). Using the same example above and changing only the length of the loan from 30 years to 15 years, the monthly payment increases to $1,479, but the total cost of the house over the life of the loan decreases to $316,287. That’s a savings of $77,452 and doesn’t factor in the likelihood of getting a better interest rate in return for the shorter loan period.

Keep in mind all of these strategies can be beneficial in some situations and not in others. In some cases it can make more sense to invest your money elsewhere, so you’ll have to run your own numbers and make the best decision based on your personal situation.

The post What Is Mortgage Amortization? appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

Here’s Everything You Should Know About Term Life Insurance

Shot of a group of people warming up outdoors

The majority of healthy Americans can use term life insurance policies to get sufficient coverage in place for anywhere from $15 to $100 a month. Most (85%) American consumers believe that most people need life insurance, but just over 60% carry a policy. Even among those who carry a life insurance policy, the amount covered is frequently not enough.

Term life insurance is a low-cost way for individuals with financial dependents to meet those people’s needs even after death. But it can be confusing to understand what it is and what it covers.

When to Consider Life Insurance

Anyone who has a financial dependent should consider buying life insurance if they don’t have the assets available to cover their dependent’s financial needs in the event of their death.

There are five major events that create financial dependence and may justify the purchase of life insurance. These events include:

  1. Taking on unsecured debt with a co-signer
  2. Taking on secured debt with a co-signer
  3. Marriage
  4. Having a child
  5. Moving to a single income

How Much Life Insurance Do I Need?

Term life insurance is the cheapest form of life insurance, but carrying too much life insurance is a waste of money. The exact amount you decide to carry will depend on your risk tolerance and the size of your financial obligations. In this article we offer rules of thumb that can help you calculate the financial loss associated with your death.

Most life insurance companies and brokers also offer life insurance calculators, but these calculators rely on averages. Since each person’s situation is different, it can be valuable to create an estimate on your own.

Unsecured debt with a co-signer

If you’ve taken on unsecured debt (like student loans) with a co-signer and you don’t have sufficient cash or investments to cover the debt, then consider purchasing life insurance in the amount that is co-signed. The beneficiary of this policy should be the person who co-signed the loan with you.

For example, if your parents have taken out $50,000 in loans via a Parent PLUS Loan or private loans, then you should take out a $50,000 policy with your parents as the beneficiaries. In most cases involving unsecured debt with a co-signer, a short term (such as 10-15 years) will be the most cost-effective option for covering this debt.

Secured debt with a co-signer

Secured debts (like a mortgage or a car loan) have some form of capital that could be sold to pay off most or all of the loans, but you still might want to consider taking out life insurance for these types of debts.

While your co-signer can sell the asset, pay off the debt, and become financially whole, that may not be the right choice for your situation (especially if the co-signer is your spouse).

For example, a couple that takes out $200,000 for a 30-year mortgage may decide to each take out a $200,000, 30-year term life insurance policy. This policy will allow either spouse to continue to live in the house in the event of the other’s death.

Marriage

Marriage isn’t a financial transaction, but it brings about financial interdependence. In the event of your death, the last thing you want your spouse to be concerned about is their finances.

Couples without children who both work aren’t financially dependent on each other, but many people would still like to provide their spouse 1-3 years’ worth of income in life insurance to cover time off from work, final expenses, and expenses associated with transitioning houses or apartments.

A couple who each earn $40,000 per year, and who have $20,000 outside of their retirement accounts, can consider purchasing life insurance policies between $20,000-$100,000 in life insurance to provide for the other’s financial needs in the event of their death.

Having a child

Because children are financially dependent on their parents, parents should carry life insurance to cover the costs of raising their children in the event of a parent’s death.

The estimated cost of raising a child from birth to 18 is $245,000, so it is reasonable for each parent to carry a policy of $100,000-$250,000 per child. It is especially important to note that stay-at-home parents should not neglect life insurance since their death may represent a big financial loss to their family (manifested in increased child care costs).

The beneficiary of this life insurance policy should be the person who would care for your child in the event of your death. Sometimes this will be your spouse, but sometimes it will be your child’s other parent, or a trust set up in your child’s name.

If a couple has two children under age 5, and $50,000 in accounts outside of retirement, then each parent should have between $150,000 and $450,000 in life insurance. Parents of older children may choose to take out smaller policies or forego the policy altogether.

Income dependence

If your spouse is dependent upon your income to meet their financial needs, then it is important to purchase enough life insurance to care for their immediate and ongoing financial needs in the event of your death. If you are the exclusive income earner in your house or if you co-own a business with your spouse that requires each of you to play a role that the other cannot play, then your death would yield a tremendous financial loss for several years or more.

In order to estimate the size of policy needed in this situation, there are a few guidelines to consider. According to the well-respected Trinity Study, if you invest 25 times your family’s annual expenditures in a well-diversified portfolio, then your portfolio has a high likelihood of providing for their needs (accounting for inflation) for at least 30 years. A policy worth 25 times your annual income, less the assets you have invested outside of retirement accounts, is the maximum policy size you should consider.

Many people choose to take out even less than this because their spouse will eventually choose to return to work. A second rule of thumb is that the total amount of life insurance for which your spouse is the beneficiary should be worth 10-12 times your annual income. A policy of this size would reasonably provide money to pay for living and education expenses (if your spouse needs to re-train to enter the workforce) for many years without damaging your spouse’s prospects of retirement.

Based on these rules of thumb, if you earn $100,000 and your family’s expenses are $70,000 per year, and your spouse is a stay-at-home parent, then you should have enough life insurance to pay out between $1 million and $1.75 million (remember to subtract the values of any other policies or non-retirement assets above when calculating this amount).

How to Shop for Life Insurance

After deciding on the amount of insurance you need, and the terms you need, you can start shopping for the best policy for you. Although it’s possible to shop around for the best insurance, MagnifyMoney recommends that most people connect with a life insurance broker. For this report, every quote received from a broker was within a few cents of the quote received directly from the insurance company.

If you tell a broker exactly what you want, they can pull up quotes from a dozen or more reputable companies to get you the most cost-effective insurance given your health history. This is especially important if you have some health restrictions.

People with standard health (usually driven by high blood pressure or obesity, or many family health problems) may find some difficulty finding low rates, but brokers can help connect them with the right companies.

People with “substandard health” because of obesity, high blood pressure, or elevated cholesterol, those suffering from current health issues, or people recently in remission from major illnesses will not qualify for term life insurance.

Top Three Life Insurance Brokers

  1. PolicyGenius – PolicyGenius is an online-only broker with an easy-to-use process and helpful policy information. Users give no contact information until they are ready to purchase a policy. PolicyGenius’s system saves data, so users don’t have to re-enter time and again. It is very easy to compare prices and policies before applying.
  2. Quotacy – Quotacy is an online-only life insurance broker with connections to more term life insurance companies than most other life insurance companies. Quotacy offers quick and easy forms to fill out, and they do not require that you give contact information until you are ready to purchase a policy. Unfortunately, they do not fully vet out the policies, so you may need to ask an agent questions before completing a purchase.
  3. AccuQuote – AccuQuote is an online-based brokerage company that specializes in life insurance products. Unlike the online-only brokerage systems, their quotes are completed through a brokerage agent via a phone call. People who prefer some human interaction will find that AccuQuote emphasizes customer service and offers the same price points as online-only competitors.

Top Life Insurance Companies

For those who prefer to shop for life insurance without the aid of a broker, these are the top five companies to consider before purchasing a policy. Each of these companies allow you to begin an application online though you may need to connect with an agent for more details (including a rate quote).

To be a top life insurance issuer, companies had to offer the lowest rates on 30-year term insurance for preferred plus or preferred health levels, and be A+ rated through the Better Business Bureau.

  1. Allianz – Allianz offers the lowest rates for both Preferred and Preferred Plus customers, but they do require you to contact an agent or a broker for a quote.
  2. Thrivent Financial – Thrivent Financial offers the lowest rates for Preferred Plus customers, but they require you to contact an agent before they will confirm your rate.
  3. American National – American National offers among the lowest rates with Preferred and Preferred Plus customers, and they work closely with all major online brokers. You must contact an agent to get a quote directly from them.
  4. Banner Life Insurance (a subsidiary of Legal & General America) – Banner Life Insurance offers an online quote portal and very low rates for Preferred Plus customers. They also seem to be a bit more lenient on the line than other customers for considering Preferred Plus (not considering family history).
  5. Prudential – Prudential offers an online quote portal and the lowest rates for Preferred customers.

What to Expect Next

After you’ve decided to purchase an insurance policy, the policy will need to undergo an underwriting process. This will include a quick medical examination (height, weight, blood pressure, urine sample, and drawing blood) that usually takes place in your home. After that, the insurance companies will need to collect and review your medical records before issuing a policy for you.

Underwriting typically takes 3-8 weeks depending on how complete your medical records are. The company will then issue you a policy, and as long as you continue to pay, your policy will remain in effect (until the expiration of the term). Once your policy is in effect, you can rest easy knowing that your financial dependents will be taken care of in the event of your death.

 

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Will You Get Real Value from an Online Degree?

Online courses_lg

In search of higher education, lucrative careers and better credentials, nearly 6 million Americans are enrolled in some kind of online course, according to data from the Online Learning Consortium. Distance learning programs tout online courses as an efficient and low-cost way to complete a degree. But are they worth the time and financial investment?

Here’s what to consider before you enroll in an online learning program:

What it really costs

For students looking to complete distance learning programs at in-state schools, the cost probably won’t vary much from traditional students attending classes in person. However if you’re comparing for-profit online schools to out of state public universities, for-profit schools tend to have lower tuition costs on average ($15,610 vs. $23,893 per year). Before you enroll in a for-profit university you should note that it is more difficult to obtain scholarships and grants when studying at a for-profit school.

Degree mills (for-profit schools that aren’t accredited such as American Central University or Golden State University) offer the lowest degree prices, but these institutions offer little in the way of education, and they drag down the appeal of all online degrees. Check to see if your school is accredited here.

A lower sticker price for an online degree might not translate to a lower out of pocket to you as a student. Before committing to an online institution, consider cost saving measures such as attending a Community College for two years and applying for scholarships at an in-state, public school. In many cases, this will end up being your lowest cost option.

However, if distance learning is right for you, you will qualify for subsidized loans if you attend any accredited school (this includes some for-profit online schools). If the school you plan to attend is accredited by one of the national or regional accrediting commissions (see this list to learn more), you will be eligible to receive the Pell Grant and Stafford or Perkins loans.

Online Degree Completion

Students in online only programs complete courses and degrees at a slightly lower rates than students in traditional programs. This may be due to a lower level of student support for online students, or the fact that more distance learners have both career and family demands in addition to their education.

Because online degrees have lower completion rates, you should ask yourself whether you have the time and resources that you need to complete your degree; if you don’t, it’s not worth the money. If your primary goal is to learn and continue your education, you may that Massive Open Online Course (MOOCs) through Khan Academy or Coursera fit your needs with negligible out of pocket costs.

What you won’t get from an online program

If you earn an online degree through a traditional university, employers will perceive your degree as on par with traditional degrees from that school. For example, a Master’s Degree in Statistics from Texas A&M is equally valuable if you earned the degree through their distance education program or while attending class on campus. However, not every employer views online for-profit universities favorably. Top tier online schools are working to change sentiments, but you should research the acceptance in your field before pursuing a degree from a for-profit institution.

Distance education programs offer fewer networking opportunities compared to traditional schools. Online students do not have as much access to professors or peers as traditional students which is a drawback during the learning process and the job search process, but recently, high quality online schools offer new technology to help their students network and job search.

You also shouldn’t expect as much hands-on help in your coursework as an online student. Distance learners need to be self-directed, and able to pick up complex concepts on their own. Students may need to teach themselves computer programs, and they will be expected to do labs or other physical projects on their own.

Advantages of online degrees

Online programs from top-tier online universities and not-for-profit universities offer high quality education that may increase your marketability. You can earn your degree with greater flexibility than in a traditional education model, and you may be able to earn your bachelor’s degree even while you hold down a full-time job and raise your family.

Depending on the school you choose and your financial aid package, an online degree may have a lower out of pocket cost compared to a traditional classroom setting. Online universities accept more transfer credits than traditional universities which can help you complete your degree faster and reduce your costs.

Especially for adults hoping to complete a degree, distance learning and online universities offer advantages that traditional schools cannot.

Is an online program for you?

The value of an online degree depends upon how you want to use it. If a degree will allow you to advance in your company or your industry, and you want to earn your degree while working then an online degree offers value above what a similarly priced brick-and-mortar school offers. Distance learners have increasing opportunities to study in a field that aligns with their personal and career goals.  Popular degrees for distance learners include healthcare administration, business administration, information systems and psychology, but hands on fields like nursing and elementary education continue to make inroads for students pursuing their degree online.

On the other hand, if you’re not a self-directed learner, or your industry frowns on online education then the money will be wasted. Degrees from non-accredited universities aren’t going to be worth the money for most people.

If you choose to pursue an online degree, be sure to compare the out of pocket cost to you (including fees), consider whether you have the time and resources to complete the degree, and line up your funding ahead of time. It’s also important to weigh your expected increase in income against the cost of the degree. Online degrees aren’t a slam dunk in value, but you may find that it’s the right choice for you.

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3 Great Financial Planning Networks for Millennials

friends millennials young peopleIt’s often said that if customers speak, the market will listen. Well, when it comes to financial planning, millennials have spoken, and they’ve made it clear the planning and advisement services of generations past will not suffice.

And true to form, the market has responded. After years of shunning or altogether shutting out clients in their 20s and 30s, or at best, attempting to force-feed them the same services as their parents, the finance industry is in the midst of an about-face, as a host of new and innovative financial planning networks designed specifically for the younger generation are making waves in the marketplace.

It’s that last point that matters most. Millennials don’t want just any financial planning services. They want services designed specifically for them. So, what exactly does financial planning designed specifically for millennials look like? In keeping with the millennial spirit, there are no official guidelines, but when you build a shortlist of the best financial planning networks for millennials (we’ll do just that momentarily), you notice they generally revolve around a few core principles. For the most part, they’re all:

  • Millennials seem impervious to sales pitches and are highly cognizant of hidden costs. They want to know exactly how much they’re paying and what they’re getting in return. This means fee-based financial services are a must.
  • Inclusive and flexible. The best planning networks for millennials welcome clients regardless of how much they have to invest or where they’re investing it from. In other words, no required minimum deposits, and no geographic restrictions.
  • Education oriented. Millennials aren’t interested in being told what to do. They want financial advisers to be more like coaches — or better still, partners.
  • Digital and social. Suit-and-tie meetings behind the closed doors of a stuffy office are not for millennials. Millennials want to socialize, interact, and share ideas where they feel most comfortable — online and on their smartphones.

In some form or another, the best financial planning networks for millennials connect in ways traditional approaches never could.

Here are three standouts:

Society of Grownups

If you want proof that millennials have caught the eye of the finance industry, look no further than the Society of Grownups, an independent subsidiary of insurance company MassMutual (although you’d hardly be able to tell — they don’t sell any of their products). Heavily focused on providing educational content that’s practical, social, and engaging, Society of Grownups offers a host of classes and events designed to help young adults identify and achieve their financial goals. Everything from spending to investing to paying down debt is covered across a variety of classes, happy hours, group chats, and supper clubs. The organization is based in Brookline, Mass., but does offer free online classes for nonlocals looking to get in on the experience. For those who want to take the next step beyond just education, Society of Grownups has a team of fee-based financial planners. Clients can choose between high-level checkups that cost $20 per appointment (the first one is free), or full financial planning appointments that run $100 per session.

XY Planning Network

The XY Planning Network is a network of fee-only financial advisers who focus specifically on Gen X and Gen Y clients. There are no minimums required to get started as a client, and advisers in the XY Planning Network are not permitted to accept commissions, referral fees, or kickbacks. In other words, no high-pressure sales pitches or hidden agendas. Just practical financial advice doled out at a flat monthly rate. The organization itself is based in North Carolina, but they offer virtual services that enable any client to connect with any adviser regardless of where they reside.

Garrett Planning Network

A national network featuring hundreds of financial planners, the Garrett Planning Network checks many key boxes for millennials. All members of the Garrett Planning Network charge for their services by the hour on a fee-only basis. They do not accept commissions, and clients pay only for the time spent working with their adviser. Just as important for millennials, advisers in the Garrett Planning Network require no income or investment account minimums for their hourly services.

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Planning the Perfect Gap Year Doesn’t Have to Break the Bank

14397435_10153850115048483_1785139792_nThe gap year — taking a year off from formal education to travel, participate in social projects, or gain work experience — is growing in popularity among American students. Just ask Malia Obama. The first daughter announced back in May that she would be taking a gap year before attending Harvard University.

She’s among those contributing to a 22% increase in American students taking part in the practice already common among students in Europe and Australia, according to the American Gap Association. Some families spend hundreds of dollars on gap-year consultants.

Like Harvard, many higher education institutions encourage students to take gap years. The reason: a push toward experiential learning. Schools increasingly see value in the life experience, maturity, and other skills that gappers return with.

“We have more information in the palm of our hands than ever. So why are we teaching [students] information? They don’t need information,” said American Gap Association Executive Director Ethan Knight. “They need experience to know what to do with that information.”

Jamie Hand, 23, a senior at Middlebury College in Vermont, echoes the sentiment. She said her gap-year trip to São Luís, Brazil with Rotary Youth Exchange allowed her to “take a break from this rat race that I felt like I was in.” At the time, she was 18 years old and wanted to take time off before beginning her freshman year. Though she already had a high school diploma under her belt, the program involved taking classes at a local high school in Franklin, W. Va.

“It felt like I was taking this big breath and I was free to excel but I didn’t have to excel,” said Hand. “It was one of the times when I learned the most in my life [because] I didn’t have to.”bike_ride_in_brasilia

The Cost of a Gap Year

Gap years may seem like a privilege only available to families wealthy enough to finance them. It’s true that some gap-year programs can easily cost more than a year’s worth of college tuition. Families pay over $35,000 — close to the average cost of a four-year degree these days — to participate in the “Global Gap Year,” a program offered by Thinking Beyond Borders, which offers gap-year and study-abroad programs. During their global year abroad, students split their time between homestays on three different continents.

But the gap-year experience isn’t just for the super-rich.

MagnifyMoney caught up with some current and previous gappers to find out how they made it work.

Go the DIY Route

Brandon Stubbs, 18, motivated by his interest in Southeast Asian archaeology, decided to defer his acceptance to Brown University for a year to travel to Malaysia for two months this fall.

Rather than paying for a trip through a travel agency, which could easily have cost several thousand dollars, he did some research on his own. Stubbs found a hostel in Johor Bahru, where he will be able to work in exchange for room and board.

To save on airfare, he booked a round-trip ticket to Malaysia for just $500 with StudentUniverse, a site that offers cheaper fares to students. When he’s not working, Stubbs plans to spend his free time sightseeing and exploring the city.

imgp9570“I’m most excited to explore an entire different area of the world,” said Stubbs, who said he grew up enthralled by the exotic locales in movies like Indiana Jones.

When he returns to the U.S. from Malaysia in November, Stubbs’ gap year will continue with a stop in New Orleans. He plans to take time off for the holidays and then move to the Big Easy, where he’ll work at a hostel in exchange for room and board.

“I feel like taking a gap year will sort of increase my momentum. High school wasn’t an easy experience mentally,” said Stubbs. “I feel like in a year I’ll be rejuvenated and ready to jump back into my studies.”

Get College Credit for the Program

A great way to save money and kill two birds with one stone during a gap year is to earn college course credits along the way. Some schools offer course credit to students who take gap years. Students may even be able to use financial aid dollars toward their gap-year experience.

Some schools have specialized programs or fellowships for gappers like UNC Chapel Hill’s fellowship, or Princeton University with its Bridge Year. Others, like Elon University, offer their own version of an experiential learning program for first-year students.

There are even some gap-year programs that will not only give you a stipend, but contribute to the cost of your college education like those offered through AmeriCorps or City Year.

Work Now, Play Later

Breaking up a gap year into smaller trips or working for part of the year can help to reduce overall costs. If you budget well, the money you earn could fund your travels.

Jericho, Vt., student Asher Small, 19, who will begin his first semester at Brown University this fall, also worked at a ski resort in Utah for part of his gap year.

“It was kind of like a dream job because I love to ski,” said Small. In addition to his $8/hour wages, the resort subsidized his room and board, leaving him with just $300 to cover each month.

Small worked at the ski resort for four months. Before making his way back home, he took a road trip through Southern Utah and California and participated in a 10-day meditation course retreat. To save on lodging, he used couchsurfing.com, a service that connects benevolent hosts with houseguests. He estimates he ended up saving about $2,000 from his work at the resort after the trip.

Working or interning during a gap year can also be a great way to build skills or experience for the subject you’re interested in majoring in once you get to school. Some programs will pay you for work abroad or offer perks like free room and board as an incentive. For example, if you have a green thumb, you could volunteer to work at an organic farm or winery through a program like World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms during your gap year in exchange for food and accommodation.

Before he went to Utah, Small spent the first half of his gap year in Desab, Haiti, with Volunteers For Peace, a nonprofit volunteer organization. There, Small taught an English class to local residents. The trip cost him about $1,500 in total, which he paid with funds he saved from past summer jobs.

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Stay Close to Home

Keeping your gap-year experience stateside can be an easy way to minimize travel expenses, reducing the overall costs of a gap year. Staying in the U.S. doesn’t mean you’ll have any less of a cross-cultural experience.

Start Saving Early

Knight recommends planning your gap year at least six months from the date you want to travel, so you’ll have ample time to save up.

Stubbs worked all four years of high school as a junior college tutor and as a camp counselor at a music camp. Doing so helped him to save about $3,000 to spend on his trip to Malaysia and Louisiana.

Small worked over the summers prior to his gap year as well. Those funds helped him with his trip to Haiti.

Tap into Your Savings

If your parents have been saving up for college, you may be able to use some of that money to finance a gap-year program, although it may mean sacrificing going to a more expensive college.

Gabe Katzman, 24, was considering the University of Maryland, where he would pay in-state tuition, and other, more expensive out-of-state institutions at the time he was planning his gap year in Israel.

His parents presented him with the option to use some of his college savings to fund the trip, which cost about $16,000 to $17,000. Because the cost was close to a year’s worth of tuition at the pricey out-of-state school, his parents told him they could only help him finance his gap year if he decided to stay in state.

Ask for Free Money: Grants, Scholarships, Trusts, and Charities

Find an organization, trust, or charity that’s aligned with the focus of your trip and ask if they have any grants or scholarships that you can apply for and that would be applicable toward your gap year.

Local associations, businesses, schools, and charities such as the Rotary Club or Lions Clubs International award grants, or scholarships may even be able to sponsor students who meet certain criteria and goals.

When Katzman decided he wanted to spend 9 months in Israel with Habonim Dror’s Workshop, a gap-year program run through his childhood camp, Habonim Dror Camp Moshava, the first thing he did was look for scholarships and grants to help him cover the $16,000 the trip would cost.

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“I talked to my synagogue,” said Katzman. “I knew that if I connected with the synagogue they [would support me].” In the end, they gave him about $3,000.

Katzman then asked other organizations including one called Masa, an Israeli organization that advocates interning and volunteering in Israel, adding another $1,000 to his fundraising goal. Next, he went to the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington.

After he got some funding through community organizations, Katzman turned to his family and friends to help out.

“I talked to all of my family. Instead of a Hanukkah or birthday present, I asked them to give me money for the trip,” said Katzman.

The rest of the funds came from his own savings from working as a lifeguard and camp counselor while in high school.

Get Creative

Katzman and the group he went to Israel with saved money by pooling their resources.

“We were living a socialist lifestyle with a group of 23. We had a shared bank account that we all put money into. Some of us put $2,000 and some put just what they could,” said Katzman.

The shared account allowed them to prioritize the group’s experience as opposed to the individual and kept them out of “a situation where someone felt excluded because they couldn’t afford it,” said Katzman.

Two of the members in Katzman’s group were co-treasurers of the shared account and managed the group’s budget. If some or all of the group’s members went out to eat or someone in the group needed to replace a pair of shoes, the money to pay for it came from the shared account. At the end of the trip, they had a little left over to donate back to the camp.

Stubbs, who already has his room and board covered with the hostel, also plays the trumpet. He plans to finance some of his living expenses while in Malaysia this fall and New Orleans in the spring with money earned from street performing or “busking.”

Some Final Advice: You have to want it.

“Sometimes coming up with the money for something like this can be really discouraging because it’s really expensive,” said Katzman.

But setting aside time for a gap year was well worth the added cost and effort. After he graduated from college, Katzman decided to move to Haifa, Israel, full-time, where he is working part-time to lead this year’s Habonim Dror gappers and taking Hebrew classes.

“I grew more in one year than I think the average college student would have grown,” he added. “It affected what I did in college, it affected my choices during college and afterward [when I decided to] live here.”

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The post Planning the Perfect Gap Year Doesn’t Have to Break the Bank appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

10 Things I Wish I Knew about Money in My 20s

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For all you 20-somethings out there, know this: We 30-somethings, we get it. We get what it’s like to be a 20-something struggling to find your way and make ends meet financially. We get that your baby-boomer parents don’t always seem to understand the social and financial pressures 20-somethings face nowadays. We get that times have changed, and that financial advice from folks 30 years your senior – folks who themselves grew up in a dramatically different era – doesn’t always seem relevant. We get what it’s like to be you because we so recently were you. In many ways, we still are you.

That said, while the gap in years between your 20s and your 30s isn’t all that large, the life changes that often occur in that time period tend to be dramatic. And whether it’s marriage, children, or the fact that some of us are now closer to 50 than we are to 20, most 30-somethings, myself included, suddenly find themselves looking back at a long list of financial moves we’re either glad we made or wish we made when we were in our 20s.

So, without further ado, here are 10 pieces of financial advice I wish I had known in my 20s.

1. Live at home for as long as you can.

If the offer to live at home is on the table, then consider yourself lucky and take it. Even if only for a year or two, the savings are significant. I know living with your parents might not seem hip, but take it from a 30-something, there’s nothing hip about paying thousands of dollars in rent unnecessarily. If you do live at home, be mature about it. Help out around the house when and where you can, and don’t be surprised or offended if you’re asked to chip in financially.

2. Pursue a postgraduate degree only if you’re sure you’ll need it and use it.

The world is littered with 30-somethings who piled on additional student loan debt to pursue an expensive postgraduate degree they’ve never put to use. Not knowing what you want to do is fine. Paying for graduate school on account of it is not.

3. Don’t make money-driven career decisions … yet.

Now, I’m not saying money shouldn’t be a consideration when weighing job offers and career paths. But I am saying that for a 20-something, it shouldn’t be the only consideration. There will come a day when, out of necessity, financial considerations guide your career decisions. Your 20s shouldn’t be that time. Instead, use your 20s to explore, learn, and find a career you find fulfilling and, hopefully, enjoyable.

4. Keep credit card debt out of your life.

By the time your 30s roll around, you will regret every penny you spent paying interest on a credit card. Use your credit cards to build your credit history and earn rewards, but be sure to pay them off in full every month.

5. A 401(k) match is your best friend.

Regardless of what decade of life you’re in, free money is free money, and it’s never to be passed up. If you’re lucky enough to work for a company that offers a 401(k) match, then be sure to sign up and start contributing from day one.

6. A Roth IRA is your second best friend.

One of the best ways for 20-somethings to put themselves in a great financial position come their 30s is to start investing in a Roth IRA as soon as possible. If you’re not familiar with a Roth IRA, there are many great resources available to help you learn. But it really is pretty simple. You contribute after-tax money, and your investments grow tax free and cannot be taxed as ordinary income if withdrawn during retirement.

7. Automate everything.

One of the major advantages you have as a 20-something is your comfort and familiarity with modern online tools and technology, a growing segment of which is being built specifically to help you get a head start financially. Perhaps the best thing modern technology does is help you automate everything. Automation is the easy button for managing your finances as a 20-something. So, whether you’re talking about credit card payments, bill paying, 401(k) contributions, investments in your Roth IRA, or anything in between, automate it and know it’s done.

8. Skip the wedding of the century.

Yes, I know, easy for us to say. We 30-somethings all spent a fortune having grand weddings. But that’s exactly the point. We spent a fortune. And trust us, your wedding day will fly by, and you won’t remember every last detail about place settings and flower arrangements. What you will remember is how much you spent on it. There’s no limit to the good use to which 30-somethings could put all that money spent (or should I say, blown) in one day.

9. Spend on experiences, not things.

As we 30-somethings can attest, you’ll never look back and regret the things you didn’t buy (they go out of style fast anyway), but you will regret the experiences you never had. Which is why it’s no surprise so many millennials prefer to spend money on memorable experiences, like traveling the world, over things, like the hottest smartwatch. 

10. Understand that time is on your side now, but it won’t be forever.

The biggest financial advantage you have as a 20-something is also the most fleeting – time. Hard as it may be to believe now, your 30s aren’t that far off. Whether it’s planning, saving, or investing, the sooner you start, the better off you’ll be. 

If there’s one thing you take away from this long list of advice, make it that last point. There are few absolute truths in the world of finance, but in all aspects of money management, if you get started as a 20-something, you’ll be glad you did once you’re a 30-something. Trust us on that one.

The post 10 Things I Wish I Knew about Money in My 20s appeared first on MagnifyMoney.