Why the ‘Save 10% for Retirement’ Rule Doesn’t Always Work

To keep saving simple, many retirement experts and financial planners tout a general 10% rule for most savers: If you start saving at least 10% of your income in your 20s, you should have plenty saved up by the time you’re ready to retire.

Why save for retirement?

Social Security might not be around to help you make ends meet in retirement; that’s even more likely for millennials and the cohorts that follow. With the nation’s current birth and death rates, it’s estimated that Social Security funds will be exhausted by 2034.

Whether or not the future retirees of America will have Social Security to rely on, their benefit check alone likely won’t be enough to meet all of their needs in retirement.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, retired households need to bring an average $42,478 to meet their annual expenses.

And yet, as of March 2017, the average monthly Social Security benefit for retirees was $1,365.35, or about $16,384 annually. That’s only slightly more than the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 poverty threshold for two-person households 65 and older ($16,480). Even in households where two spouses are receiving Social Security income, that’s still less than $32,000 per year.

That’s why it’s so important for workers to set additional income aside during their working years. When Social Security falls short, those extra savings will be essential.

Who does the 10% retirement rule work best for?

It’s likely that 10% became the rule of thumb simply because it’s easy to remember and makes the mental math a lot easier. But it’s important to understand who the rule is targeting: younger workers.

Since younger workers have more time to let their money grow, they can afford to save a bit less in their early days. But the advice changes as workers’ savings windows narrow with age. A 40-something worker, for example, who never saved for retirement may be encouraged to save twice as much for retirement since they have a shorter timetable.

“Ten percent may be enough, it may not be enough, and it may even be too much,” depending on your age and financial picture, says Amy Jo Lauber, a certified financial planner in Buffalo, N.Y. Someone paying off student loans or high-interest credit cards simply may not be able to put away 10% of their income.

It gets increasingly complicated when you consider your personal income and ability to save as well as your retirement goals.

“Typically, younger clients do not have complex situations and can get by with simple strategies. Once there are competing priorities, such as saving for a home, kids, and kids’ college, then things get complicated and more sophisticated strategies are required,” says Howard Pressman, a certified financial planner and partner at Egan, Berger & Weiner.

As Pressman suggests, you might need to tweak the rule if you’re starting to stash away retirement funds at an earlier or later age or want to put more money away now for a more lavish retirement.

Timing is everything

This chart from JP Morgan’s 2017 Guide to Retirement demonstrates the power of saving early for retirement.

At a modest 6% annual growth rate, Consistent Chloe, a 25-year-old who puts away $5,000 a year until she reaches age 65 should have a retirement account balance of more than $820,000, according to the bank. And when all’s said and done, only $200,000 would have come out of her own pocket — the rest would have resulted from the power of compounding interest.

In comparison, Nervous Noah, a more timid 25-year-old saver, could put away the same $5,000 a year in a savings account earning far less annual interest on his cash. After the same 40-year period, he would only have a balance of $308,050.

Investing earlier can bring even greater success. If a person starts putting away $5,000 a year at 20, growing at 6%, their balance at 65 would be about $1,132,549, which we calculated using the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s compound interest calculator. That’s more than $300,000 added to Consistent Chloe’s retirement balance for beginning just two years earlier.

The final balance at 65 drops below $1 million for anyone starting after 25. As you can see above, those who begin saving will have less and less to live on in retirement.

7 retirement savings tips

  1. Start early

The emphasis of this rule is starting early. The earlier you save, the more you can take advantage of compound interest.

“Compounding is earning interest on interest earned in prior periods and is the most powerful force in all of finance,” says Pressman. To make the most of this rule, start saving 10% of your income for retirement by the time you turn 25.
Start by maxing out your 401(k) or IRA contribution limits for the year. If you still have additional funds, it might be time to meet with a financial planner to find out how to best invest your surplus.

  1. Know your options

The best place to stash retirement savings is either an IRA or a 401(k). Your money simply won’t grow enough to beat inflation if you leave it in a low-interest-bearing account like a checking or savings account.

  1. Make debt and emergency savings a priority

“Before anyone starts focusing on retirement saving, the first thing they should do is to establish an emergency cash reserve. This is to protect them from a job loss, a health emergency, or even an expensive car repair,” says Pressman. He recommends saving three to six month’s worth of expenses in a savings account.

If placing 10% of your income in a retirement account is too much of an ask because you have more pressing financial obligations like higher-interest debts, or don’t earn enough to cover your expenses, you should address those before increasing your retirement contribution.

Generally speaking, if the interest rate on any debts you owe is higher than what you’d earn on your retirement savings, you’ll make more progress toward your financial goals by addressing the higher-interest debt first.

  1. Plan differently if you have irregular income

Lauber says those who are freelancing and cobbling together a living may need to put several financial policies in place to help them navigate with irregular income.

“The 10% rule works for them but only if other measures are in place for the immediate day-to-day needs,” says Lauber. You can still create a budget with irregular income, but you might need to approach retirement saving more aggressively when income is higher, and strategize your saving to compensate for months when income is nonexistent or low. Find more tips on how to manage irregular income here.

  1. Make the most of your match

Don’t leave free money on the table. If your employer offers to match your contribution, Kristi Sullivan, a certified financial planner with Sullivan Financial Planning in Denver, Colo., advises individuals to save as much as your employer matches immediately or 6% if there is not a match. That way, you won’t miss out on free additions to your retirement nest egg.

  1. Automate your contribution

Out of sight, out of mind. Automate your retirement contribution to ensure you pay yourself first.

“Typically, once it’s done through payroll deduction, the person seldom misses it,” says Lauber.

  1. Check in regularly

Don’t just “set it and forget it.” Mark R. Morley, certified financial planner and president of Warburton Capital Management, stresses “clients must be ‘invested’ in their own plan.”

He says to check periodically on your retirement account and make adjustments where necessary. If you have a financial adviser, you may want to schedule regular progress meetings.

“When a client is engaged in their own plan and can see real results, we can work on the two variables that affect the retirement accounts: time and money,” says Morley.

The post Why the ‘Save 10% for Retirement’ Rule Doesn’t Always Work appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

9 Things Every 20-Something Should Know About Money

If you’re a “younger” millennial and find yourself struggling with your finances in your 20s, pay attention.

There’s no better time to learn about money than when you’re young and broke. The 10 years between 20 and 30 go by fast, and will be full of many important life changes that can shape your overall financial future. Whether it’s financial planning, saving, or investing, the sooner you start, the better off you’ll be.

If you can educate yourself on how to manage the little money you have now, you’ll be better prepared to manage your finances effectively when you earn more and life inevitably gets more complicated.

Lucky for you, today’s technology provides you with a wealth of (free) financial information at your fingertips, including this handy list of expert-approved money lessons to learn on your journey to dirty 30.

9 Things You Should Learn about Money in your 20s

#1: The magic of spending less than you earn

The first financial lesson you should learn is simple enough: spend less than you earn. Most people mess this one up.

At least, Pew Research shows 68% of Americans say they use credit cards and loans to make purchases that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford with their income and savings. This leads to more stress in your life, a dependency on debt, and an endless cycle of working to pay off or evade lenders.

Learn to follow a budget well and you’ll easily learn to live within your means. You may even take it a step further in your 20s — save more by living below your means, not just within your paycheck.

“Gain peace of mind that you’re being responsible by setting up guidelines for your spending and savings early in your 20s,” says Dan Andrews, certified financial planner and founder of Well-Rounded Success. The website provides financial guidance geared toward a millennial audience.

If you get those guidelines set early in your life, you’ll likely have an easier time addressing more complicated money topics like homeownership and having kids. If not, a large unexpected bill or the birth of a child could destroy your finances.

#2: Eventually something will go wrong

In the savings hierarchy, your emergency fund should be your first priority.You are bound to run into an emergency eventually.

“I know when you’re a 20-something, you feel invincible, but the fact is, emergencies are still going to arise, it’s not a matter of if, but when,” says Gen Y financial expert and author of The Broke and Beautiful Life Stefanie O’Connell.

The rule of thumb says to set aside 6 to 12 months’ worth of fixed expenses in case of an emergency. You can stash this money in a checking account, savings account, or any of these other options.

If you don’t plan for a financial emergency, you’ll find yourself in a tight spot when an emergency undoubtedly happens. If, for example, you lose your income, a liquid savings buffer might save you from turning to your parents for money or taking on high-interest debt to survive. That’s not an improbable crisis to imagine, as almost half of American households experience volatile income.

“By setting aside money, you can live off this savings while you look for new work, or better yet, have the flexibility to pursue the work you want,” says Andrews.

After the dust settles, you can high-five yourself for handling your crisis on your own.

#3: “YOLO” is a pretty terrible financial strategy

One of the hardest parts of your 20s is learning to think past “today” when making money decisions — especially when everyone seems to want to live in the moment.

Really ask yourself what goals you have for the future: Starting your own business? A family? Now is the time to stop thinking and start planning for how you’ll afford those life milestones when the time arrives.

Make it a habit to plan and save early for these stages before you reach them. When you’re planning, think about what’s most important to you and nearest in your life’s timeline. Don’t forget to consider the time it would take to save for larger expenses.

O’Connell gives the following example: If you decide to start saving for a $50,000 home down payment just two years before you plan to buy a home, you’ll have to save $25,000 a year. That’s tough. But if you think about that milestone money goal from 10 years out, you only have to save $5,000 a year, which is much more manageable.

Not every account has to be for a huge savings goal like a mortgage payment. You can practice the habit of planning ahead with any large purchase you plan to make.

“Create fun savings accounts, like a travel fund or to save up for that Dr. Seuss painting that you really want. These savings accounts motivate you to stash away more money for the financial milestones in your future,” says Andrews.

#4: The key to getting a killer credit score

Don’t get bogged down trying to understand everything about your credit score and why it’s so important right now. Just remember a few key facts so that you don’t mess up your score early and spend the next decade trying to undo the damage.

  • Use your credit card, but pay it off in full each month.
  • Don’t max it out. In fact, never use more than 30% of your total available limit.
  • The best strategy: Put one small bill or recurring purchase (like coffee) on your credit card, and pay it off each month. Use cash for everything else.

If you focus on those things, you should easily avoid derogatory marks on your credit report and quickly build a healthy credit score. Learn more tips to build your credit score here.

#5: One day you will get old and want to retire

Remember how we said it’s hard to think far into the future in your 20s? Well, this is going to be challenging. But it’s crucial to start saving for retirement as early as possible. Your biggest advantage to saving for retirement is your age. The younger you are, the more time you have to take advantage of compound interest on your retirement savings and other investment accounts.

So figure out what retirement savings options your employer offers (typically a 401(k)) and open an account. If your employer offers a match, then that is amazing and don’t miss out — it’s free money.

Contact your employer’s human resources department for help working through your options. That is what they are there for. A great, hands-off option for young savers is a Target Date Fund. Then set up an automatic payroll deposit at least high enough to capture any match your job offers.

Don’t worry about the swings of the stock market. Don’t worry about picking the perfect portfolio. Just put money in your retirement fund as early as possible and get to the complicated stuff later. The point is that you start saving for retirement — not that you become the next Warren Buffett right away.

“Too many young people don’t take advantage of all the benefits they can get at their workplaces. Simply ask your HR department if there’s a match on 401(k) contributions,” says Andrews.

Once you get a good grasp on retirement savings, you can upgrade to more sophisticated investing strategies.

#6: How to be your own “tax guy”

Do your own taxes at least once. The experience will give you a better idea of how the tax system works and can save you an average $273 you’d otherwise spend on tax preparation fees. Many free and low-cost options exist to e-file your taxes, including free filing options found on the IRS website.

“When you do your own taxes it also helps to demystify the process. If you decide to pay for help in the future, you’ll be able to vet your future accountant and hold your own in conversations,” says O’Connell.

She advises young people to take the opportunity to learn about how the tax system works and any tax strategies you can use to save money in the future, like making Roth IRA contributions, tuition payments, or charitable donations.

Another reason to learn now: Your taxes may never be simpler to understand. There may be special circumstances that require you to hire a tax professional when you’re older, like getting married, investing in the stock market, or owning your own business. If you feel like you need professional help, look for a tax preparer since their rates are typically cheaper than hiring a Certified Public Accountant.

#7: When to ignore social media


Don’t get caught up in spending your money to catch up with whatever your other friends are doing. You don’t know what anyone’s financial picture looks like behind all those Instagrammed vacations or a wedding album fit for a princess.

“Your day will come when you make your friends jealous, but that’s not the point. The point is to focus on your financial life to give you the foundation to live your great life,” says Andrews.

He advises 20-somethings to gain resilience while young, because you’ll likely compare your lifestyle to others at every age.

#8: Your debt won’t go away if you ignore it

If you do decide to ignore your debts, you could suffer consequences even worse than a dinged credit score.

Debt collectors can sue you for payment. If you ignore a debt lawsuit, the resulting judgment could result in garnished wages or lost assets.

“You’ve got to become proactive about your debt. It has to go from being something you procrastinate to something you prioritize. And a priority is something you build your life around,” says O’Connell.

O’Connell suggests you change your mindset to think of debt as an emergency that needs to be addressed immediately.

“In moments of crisis we don’t make excuses, we get ruthless because we have to. Excuses like, ‘but it’s a special occasion’ or ‘I can’t give up my vacation’ don’t even cross our minds,” says O’Connell. She adds getting ruthless might mean making some sacrifices and hustling to earn more income, but it’ll be worth it when you’re debt-free.

Struggling to make your student loan payments? You’ve still got options.

#9: How and when to negotiate your salary

Remember, the salary you earn at your first real-world job “will serve as the anchor from which you negotiate future raises, making your starting salary, arguably, the most important of your career,” says O’Connell.

That in mind, it’s worth negotiating a bit to get the best deal you can when you’re presented with your first employment offer. Hiring managers and recruiters expect candidates to negotiate; to them, it demonstrates initiative. The experience will also give you an opportunity to educate yourself about negotiation skills and get valuable, real-world practice.

Again, the internet is your friend here. You can learn salary negotiation tactics from numerous online resources, then practice with friends or mentors so you’re ready when a real offer is on the table. One word of warning: Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Remember, you can ask for much more than more money (think: commuter benefits, education credit, etc.).

If you’re asking for a raise with a current employer, consider the average pay raise for salaried employees in 2017 is 3%, according to the Economic Research Institute, a think tank that provides salary survey data to Fortune 500 companies. So asking for a salary hike from $50,000 to $60,000 is pushing it at a 20% pay raise without much experience to justify your ask.

To sum it all up…

Just do your best. Focus on learning these concepts, but don’t beat yourself up. If you stray from your path to financial freedom every now and then, it’s all right. You can’t expect to be a perfect money manager — even accountants have accountants — but if you correct yourself when you make mistakes early on, you’ll be glad you made the effort later on in life.

The post 9 Things Every 20-Something Should Know About Money appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

13 College Costs You Don’t Think About

When families think of financing a college education, they usually think about covering tuition costs. It’s easy to home in on tuition — after all, it’s an obvious, in-your-face expense. But tuition and fees don’t make up the largest portion of the average cost of college attendance.

In the College Board’s most recent Trends in College Pricing, researchers found non-tuition-related expenses at public four-year schools account for 61% of a total $24,610 average cost of attendance.

Here are a few hidden college costs for families to consider before the school year starts.

 

Housing

Room and board make up about 42% of the total cost of attendance at four-year public institutions, according to the College Board. After tuition, housing is the second-largest expense students will encounter.

For students who choose (or for whom it is required) to live in on-campus housing, room and board might be a non-negotiable expense. The cost to live in a dorm can vary from as low as $5,326 for the school year to more than $18,000 according to U.S. News Short List rankings. Generally speaking, it’s cheaper to live on campus in areas with higher rent, while off-campus housing is cheaper in areas with lower rental costs.

Other on-campus living requirements such as enrollment in the school’s meal plan, a security deposit, and dorm fees can also add up.

Don’t assume the university’s housing cost estimate is correct, as schools use different factors to calculate costs. A 2015 Trulia analysis found “schools often underestimate the cost of off-campus housing, sometimes by thousands of dollars for the school term.” For example, the University of California, Berkeley, estimates a student would spend $7,184 to live off campus, while Trulia’s data showed it would cost $12,375 for two students to share a two-bedroom apartment for nine months.

Tips to save on off-campus housing:

Compare costs to on-campus housing. Depending on where you attend school, a 9- or 12-month off-campus lease plus utilities and internet might actually be more expensive than room and board in a university dorm.

Look for roommates to help ease the burden of utilities and other bills.

Use search engines like Uloop and College Student Apartments to filter through housing options near your school and find even more savings.

 

Furniture and decor

Plan to budget a few hundred bucks for furniture and decor. If you’re lucky, your dorm or apartment might include a few pieces of furniture. Even then, you’ll need bedding, curtains, linens, and other staples. Plan to spend funds on furniture and decorations to make the new space feel like home.

The good news is that any college town where students are constantly moving in and leaving each year are great for the resellers market. Check out Craigslist in your area to save on furniture, or resale sites like AptDeco, Furnishare, or Furnishly. Facebook’s new marketplace feature is a good idea, too.

Pro tip: Consider starting a college registry. Target’s College Registry offers a 15% discount on any items that aren’t purchased. Also, don’t forget your student ID card. Some retailers may offer student discounts.

 

Parking fees

If you plan to commute or keep a vehicle on campus, set aside money for parking ahead of time. Schools typically offer a range of parking packages for students. For example, student parking permits at Boston University go for as low as $266.40 per school year for evening commuters, to $1,905.50 for those who live on campus and need to park overnight.

You may be required to pay a lump sum for parking at the beginning of each semester. Check if your school prices parking passes by location. If they do, research on-campus transit. You may be able to pay for cheaper parking farther from your classes, then hop on campus transit to class. Consider cheaper parking options like city parking lots or curbside options if there are any nearby.

 

Study abroad and other travel

College years are prime time for travel. Whether you’re hitting the beach with friends on spring break or considering an extended study abroad program, you could easily spend thousands of dollars on travel over the course of four years.

Study abroad programs, complete with room, board, instruction, and sometimes internships, can get pricey. For example, Northwestern University estimates a year studying abroad in Brazil to costs about $21,000 for students, while a summer abroad in the University of Georgia’s UGA en Buenos Aires program costs $4,294, plus about $3,000 in tuition and fees.

Often, students finance study abroad trips with financial aid. Just think it through before you take on more debt, especially if you’ve taken on a lot of student debt already. Many school study abroad offices offer scholarships for students. Another good source is Cappex.com, which tracks college scholarships.

 

Food

The average college and university charges about $4,500, or $18.75 per day, for a three-meal-a-day dining contract for a typical 8- or 9-month academic year, according to the Hechinger Report, an independent, nonprofit education news site.

If you want to use the meal plan but the standard campus meal plan is too expensive or wasteful for your budget, you could find savings in a lower-cost plan. Many post-secondary institutions offer lower-cost meal plan packages. Schools may also require first-year students or those living on campus to sign up for a meal plan, but allow upperclassmen and commuters to decide to what extent — if at all — they want to participate.

For example, at New York University, a student can pay $2,800 per semester for an all-access meal plan (28 meals per week) or as little as $1,210 per semester for a so-called “flex” plan (5 meals per week).

 

Books, fees, and supplies

Textbooks and class fees don’t come cheap. The average full-time student at a four-year public institution will spend $1,298 per year on books and supplies, according to the College Board.

Sometimes, fees come as a surprise. In an ongoing study, Wisconsin HOPE Lab researchers tracked the cost experiences of students at four public universities in Wisconsin. At one school, students on the waiting list for a required English course that was full were told to sign up for the online version. Without a heads up, the students were charged an unexpected $250 online course fee.

A student might also need to purchase special equipment or software essential to a course or course of study. Science and technology courses may tack on lab fees, while art students may shell out cash for studio time or class materials.

If you can get hold of a course syllabus early, you should. Don’t only look for what’s required to pass. Check carefully for any fees or payments needed to take the course before you show up. If you can’t get a copy of the syllabus and are unsure, you can usually reach the professor to ask via email.

 

Your family’s changing financial picture

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You could be surprised by a rise in your cost of attendance if you or your family’s financial picture changes.

The effects of this scenario are demonstrated in the Wisconsin Scholars Longitudinal Study, a six-year-long investigation of how Pell Grant recipients attending public institutions in Wisconsin experienced the price of higher education conducted by the HOPE Lab.

Researchers found the financial burden on students grows over time as tuition rises and families experience financial changes. Twenty percent of students in the study experienced a median $1,215 hike in the Expected Family Contribution — how much of the cost of attendance their household was expected to pay after their first year. When your EFC grows, it means you’re likely to be awarded less financial aid.

Many students, they found, also lost eligibility for the Pell Grant and other aid dependent on Pell eligibility.

 

Dried-up scholarships and grants

Additionally, students usually receive the most financial aid for their first year of college, but scholarships and grants may not stick around for all four years. They could be allotted for the first year only, or a student may lose academic or financial eligibility. Many universities use “front loading” to attract freshman to the school. They recruit incoming freshman with grants and scholarships and may not continue to fund grants for continuing students. On average this increases the net price from the first to second year of college by about $1,400.

Contact your school’s financial aid office early on if you expect a change in income to affect your EFC, as you may be able to explain your situation in an appeal. If you receive a scholarship or grant, carefully scrutinize the terms to make sure you know how long the money will last and what you’ll need to do to keep the award.

 

A new laptop

For many courses, having a laptop or access to a personal computer is crucial to success. Be prepared to pay $700 to $1,500 for that success, depending on the specs you need to excel in your major.

Some of the pricing is dependent on the laptop’s operating system. Students can get a Google computer for a couple of hundred dollars or a PC for less than $700, while an Apple Macbook Air starts at about $1,000. Always ask about a student discount. Some retailers like Apple offer discounted education pricing models for students and educators. Others, like Best Buy, periodically send out a newsletter with college student deals. You could save hundreds just by leveraging your student status.

Try using the school’s computers to complete work outside of class if they come with the software you need already loaded. You may also be able to rent laptops, tablets, cameras, and other technology from your school or local retailers. If you need to purchase software, and it can be downloaded on multiple computers, you could share a login with a classmate to share and split the cost.

 

Club and organization fees

Socializing comes at a price in college. Campus organizations often charge membership dues ($10-$25 at the low end), but it can get much more expensive for students looking to enter a sorority or fraternity. UCLA estimates the average annual cost of room, board, and dues to be about $7,650 for sororities and $8,328 for fraternities. That’s before adding in all of the other membership costs like clothing and fees to attend social functions.

While in an organization, there will likely be multiple occasions when you would need to buy merchandise, gifts, or clothing for events. If you’re into sports, for example, you may want to participate in an intramural sports league. You might need to pay a league fee, then purchase equipment and a team uniform.

Overall, keep your budget top of mind when faced with these opportunities. You might think twice about handing over thousands to your new “brothers” if it means skipping meals later on in the semester.

 

Internships

Internships — especially unpaid ones — can get expensive. Internships present a great opportunity for students to connect with others in their selected field and learn on-the-job skills, but they don’t pay much. For a student financing their education alone, an unpaid or low-paying internship could mean a missed opportunity. You could get offered the internship of your dreams with a large company, then have to turn it down if the pay is too little to cover your living costs.

Let’s say you accept an unpaid part-time summer internship offer (in exchange for course credit) from a firm in an expensive city like Los Angeles. It may be nearly impossible to make ends meet without financial assistance from your family or loans. Yes, you could probably cover some costs with another part-time position, or save money by staying in co-living community like Purehouse, but you’ll be scraping by to eat decent food or do anything outside of work.

The most competitive and best-paying internships are quickly filled. Apply to paid internships early on if an unpaid internship is out of the question. Periodically check for paid spring and summer internships with fall semester deadlines. Look for internships close to campus or your family to offset costs. If the internship is in another city, check to see if you have family or friends you can stay with for the time.

 

“Fun”

Social events present great opportunities to connect outside of class with others in your major or cohort. However, being a social butterfly is a quick way to deplete any bank account.

For example, student season tickets for the 2016 Ohio State football season ran students $180 to attend all five Big Ten conference games. To attend an additional two conference games, students would need to purchase a $252 package. That’s before you spend money on food, drinks, and an outfit for the pre-game tailgate.

You only have four to six years to make long-lasting relationships in college that could affect the rest of your life, so it’s understandable to feel pressure to attend parties, hang out at bars, go to dinners, and other activities. However, you could go broke or get into debt if you’re not careful.

Look for free or low-cost events to attend, then be selective about which events and activities are worth it for your budget. Keep an eye on your spending and always ask if you can save money on meals, clothes, or events with a student ID discount. You might get teased for seeming “cheap,” but you could avoid putting these expenses on a credit card.

 

Health insurance and medical costs

If you do not get health coverage through your parents, some schools may require you to sign up for a health plan. For example, New York University automatically enrolls students in its school-sponsored health care plan, but students can waive the plan if they can provide evidence they maintain alternate health insurance coverage that meets the university’s minimum health insurance criteria.

The cost of a basic plan for the spring 2017 semester: $1,654. If you’re an out-of-state student and don’t find alternative insurance coverage in time for classes, you could be stuck paying the bill as “NYU requires that all students registered in degree-granting programs maintain health insurance.”

Shop around to be sure you’re getting the best coverage at the best price possible. That may mean going outside of your school’s designated plan. You might want to consider signing up for coverage in the federal government’s Health Insurance Marketplace or your state’s equivalent insurance marketplace.

The post 13 College Costs You Don’t Think About appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

Debt Buyers Reveal Just How Far They’re Willing to Go to Settle Unpaid Debts

Tens of millions of Americans are pursued by debt buyers, speculators who buy the rights to collect their overdue bills. Yet few consumers realize this growing segment of the collection industry may offer them a chance to slash their delinquent debts by as much as 75%.

A MagnifyMoney investigation examined the business practices of debt buyers as detailed in disclosures to their investors. Here’s how the game is played:

  • Buyers purchase massive bundles of unpaid consumer debts with face values that often total billions of dollars. Those are the bills that banks, credit card companies, and other creditors give up trying to collect.
  • Those debts are bought at deeply discounted prices, averaging roughly 8 cents on the dollar.
  • The buyers only expect to recover a fraction of the original amounts owed. Their target is to recover from 2 to 3 times more than they paid.

The bottom line: Debt buyers can turn profits that meet their goals by collecting merely 16% to 24% of the original face values. That knowledge can be useful to savvy debtors who choose to negotiate a settlement for less.

Debt buyers “absolutely” have more flexibility in negotiating with consumers, says Sheryl Wright, senior vice president of Encore Capital Group, the nation’s largest debt buyer. Encore offers most debtors a 40% discount to settle, according to the company’s website.

“There could be an advantage in terms of negotiating a favorable settlement,” says Lisa Stifler of the Center for Responsible Lending, a nonprofit consumer advocate. “Debt buyers are willing to – and generally do – accept lower amounts.”

Stifler warned that debtors should be cautious in all interactions with debt buyers and collectors. (See “Tips to fight back against debt buyers and debt collectors” later in this article.)

In the world of debt buying, the numbers can vary. The price of bad debt portfolios ranged from 5 to 15 cents on the dollar during the past two years, according to corporate disclosures of debt buyers. The variables include the age of debt, size of account, type of loan, previous collection attempts, geographic location, and data about debtors – plus shifts of supply and demand in the bad debt marketplace.

What remains constant is the debt buyers’ goal of recovering 2 to 3 times more than the purchase price they pay for the accounts.

It is a different business model than that of traditional debt collection agencies, contractors that pursue bills for a percentage of what they recover. In contrast, debt buyers may often be more willing to wheel and deal to settle accounts with consumers.

Debt buyers raked in $3.6 billion in revenue last year – about one-third of the nation’s debt collections, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s latest annual report.

Information is scarce on the inner workings of hundreds of debt buyers who operate in the U.S. An accurate count is not available since only 17 states require buyers to be licensed.

Of the more than 575 debt buyers that belong to the industry’s trade association, only three are publicly traded entities required to file disclosures last year with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission. MagnifyMoney looked into reports from two of those companies and found telling insights into an industry typically secretive about its practices.

An “Encore” of unpaid bills

Encore owns nearly 36 million open accounts of consumer debt in the U.S. through its subsidiaries Midland Credit Management, Midland Funding, Asset Acceptance, and Atlantic Credit & Finance.

During 2016, Encore invested $900 million to buy debt with a face value of $9.8 billion – or 9 cents per dollar. On average, the corporation recovers 2.5 times more than it pays for debt portfolios – the equivalent of 22.5 cents per dollar owed, according to its annual report to the SEC.

In that disclosure, the San Diego-based operation details how it tries to get debtors to pay.

Encore boasts that its proprietary “decision science” enables it “to predict a consumer’s willingness and ability to repay his or her debt.” It obtains “detailed information” about debtors’ “credit, savings or payment behavior,” then analyzes “demographic data, account characteristics and economic variables.”

“We pursue collection activities on only a fraction of the accounts we purchase,” stated Encore. “Consumers who we believe are financially incapable of making any payments … are excluded from our collection process.”

The rest of the debtors can expect to hear from Encore’s collectors. But the company knows most won’t respond.

“Only a small number of consumers who we contact choose to engage with us,” Encore explained. “Those who do are often offered discounts on their obligations or are presented with payment plans that are intended to suit their needs.”

While the company offers most debtors discounts of 40% to settle, relatively few take advantage of that opportunity.

“The majority of consumers we contact do not respond to our calls and letters, and we must then make the decision about whether to pursue collection through legal action,” Encore stated. In its annual report, the company disclosed it spent $200 million for legal costs last year.

In a written response to questions from MagnifyMoney, Encore refused to reveal the number of lawsuits it has filed or the amount of money it has recovered as a result of that litigation.

“We ultimately take legal action in less than 5% of all of our accounts,” says Wright. If Encore has sued 5% of its 36 million domestic open accounts, the total would be roughly 1.8 million court cases.

Portfolio Recovery Associates has acquired a total of 43 million consumer debts in the U.S. during the past 20 years. Behind Encore, it ranks as the nation’s second-largest debt buyer.

Its parent company, PRA Group Inc. of Norfolk, Va., paid $900 million last year to buy debts with a face value of $10.5 billion – or 8 cents on the dollar, according to its 2016 annual report. Its target is to collect a multiple of 2 to 3 times what it paid.

It is a high-stakes investment. The company must satisfy its own creditors since it borrows hundreds of millions of dollars to buy other people’s unpaid debts. PRA Group reported $1.8 billion in corporate indebtedness last year.

PRA Group declined an opportunity to respond to questions from MagnifyMoney. In lieu of an interview, spokeswoman Nancy Porter requested written questions. But the company then chose not to provide answers.

Asta Funding Inc., the only other publicly traded debt buyer, did not respond to interview requests from MagnifyMoney.

Tips to fight back against debt buyers and debt collectors

All types of bill collectors have a common weakness: They often know little about the accounts they chase. And that’s a primary reason for many of the 860,000 consumer complaints against collectors last year, according to a database kept by the Federal Trade Commission.

Be sure the debt is legitimate first

In dealing with collectors, you should begin by questioning whether the debt is legitimate and accurate. You can also ask who owns the debt and how they obtained the right to collect it.

In 2015, Portfolio agreed to pay $19 million in consumer relief and $8 million in civil penalties as a result of an action by the CFPB.

“Portfolio bought debts that were potentially inaccurate, lacking documentation or unenforceable,” stated the CFPB. “Without verifying the debt, the company collected payments by pressuring consumers with false statements and churning out lawsuits using robo-signed court documents.”

One unemployed 51-year-old mother in Kansas City, Mo. fought back and won a big judgment in court.

Portfolio mistakenly sued Maria Guadalujpe Mejia for a $1,100 credit card debt owed by a man with a similar sounding name. Despite evidence it was pursuing the wrong person, the company refused to drop the lawsuit.

Mejia countersued Portfolio. Outraged by the company’s bullying tactics, a court awarded her $83 million in damages. In February, the company agreed to settled the case for an undisclosed amount.

Challenge the debt in writing

Within 30 days of first contact by a collector, you have the right to challenge the debt in writing. The collector is not allowed to contact you again until it sends a written verification of what it believes you owe.

Negotiate a settlement

If the bill is correct, you can attempt to negotiate a settlement for less, a sometimes lengthy process that could take months or years. By starting with low offers, you may leave more room to bargain.

Communicate with collectors in writing and keep copies of everything. On its website, the CFPB offers sample letters of how to correspond with collectors.

As previously noted, debt buyers generally have more leeway to negotiate settlements since they actually own the accounts. A partial list of debt buyers can be found online at DBA International.

In contrast, collection agencies working on contingency may be more restricted in what they can offer. They need to collect enough to satisfy the expectations of creditors plus cover their own fee.

As part of a settlement, the debt buyer or collector may offer a discount, a payment plan allowing the consumer to pay over time, or a combination of the two.

“Through this process, we use a variety of options, not just one approach or another, to create unique solutions that help consumers work toward long-term financial well-being and improve their quality of life,” says Encore’s Wright.

A settlement doesn’t guarantee the debt will be scrubbed from your credit report

To encourage settlements, Encore recently announced that it would remove negative information from the credit reports of consumers two years after they paid or settled their debts. Traditionally, the negative “tradelines” remain on credit reports for seven years.

“We believe the changes in our credit reporting policy provide a tangible solution to help our consumers move toward a better life,” says Wright.

However, Encore’s new policy does nothing to speed up the removal of any negative information reported by the original creditor from whom the company bought the debt.

Check your state’s statute of limitations on unpaid debts

Before any payment or negotiation, check to see if the statute of limitations has expired on the debt. That is the window of time for when you can be sued; it varies from state to state and generally ranges from three to six years.

If the statute of limitations on your debt has expired, you may legally owe nothing. If the expiration is nearing, you can have extra leverage in negotiating a settlement. But be careful: A partial payment can restart the statute in some states and lengthen the time a black mark remains on your credit record.

Respond promptly if the company decides to sue

If you are sued over the debt, be sure to respond by the deadline specified in the court papers. If you answer, the collector will have to prove you owe the money.

If you don’t timely answer the complaint, the burden of proof may switch to you. A judge may enter a default judgment against you – or even sign a court order to garnish your paycheck.

Seek help from a lawyer or legal aid service if you have questions, but be careful of where you turn for help. The CFPB warns consumers to be wary of debt collection services that charge money in advance to negotiate on your behalf. They often promise more than they can deliver and get paid no matter what happens.

The post Debt Buyers Reveal Just How Far They’re Willing to Go to Settle Unpaid Debts appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

How Much Should I Spend on a Wedding Gift?

When Alston Waldrip was in law school and money was tight, she thought creatively about how to buy wedding presents. For one couple, she bought a cast iron skillet for $15 and hand-decorated a sign with their last name. For another, she and several female friends each contributed $20-$25 for a bedding set.

Waldrip, now an attorney in Gainesville, Ga., kept all that in mind when she picked items with a range of prices for her November 2017 wedding registry. The lowest starts at just $16, for a bottle opener from Anthropologie.

“I would feel so guilty if someone were to pay out of their means for me,” Waldrip says. “I try to be really respectful of that.”

But how much money should you spend on a wedding present for someone? And how do you balance that cost with the other financial investments associated with attending a wedding?

Spending Guidelines: Replacing Something Old with Something New

One old gift-buying rule you can ignore is to spend as much as the cost of your plate at the reception, plus the cost of your guest’s meal, if you bring one. Nancy Mitchell, founder of The Etiquette Advocate, an etiquette training and consulting firm in Washington, D.C., says she thinks using this guideline is a mistake.

“How in the world would you know how much someone is spending on the reception and the per-person cost for the reception?” she says.

The Knot, a wedding-planning website, conducted a survey of 15,000 brides and suggested people spend $50 to $75 for co-workers and distant friends and family, $75 to $100 on friends and relatives, and $100 to $150 on close friends and relatives.

A 2016 survey by FiveThirtyEight.com polled over 1,000 people and found that, on average, people spent $50 on friends, $82 on close friends, $71 on extended family, and $147 on close family.

Mitchell says these numbers are reasonable, but emphasizes that outlining exactly how much to spend is difficult since each person’s income and resources will differ.

“I probably range from $30 if I don’t know them very well, to $50 to $75 if I know them a little better, at this point in my life,” Waldrip says.

If you’re invited to the wedding of someone with a much higher income — your boss, for example — don’t think about how much that person could afford to spend on a gift for you. Follow the general rule to spend within your means, Mitchell says.

Create a Gift Budget

Many millennials are at a point in their lives when it seems everyone they know is getting engaged, getting married, or getting pregnant. Dominique Broadway, a financial planner in Washington, D.C., who works with millennials, says setting up a monthly gift budget can prevent you from overspending.

“You need to figure out what works for you and don’t try to force yourself to walk in with the biggest, grandest gift,” she says. “You need to figure out what you can actually afford.”

Broadway says to sit down and figure out exactly what your expenses are every month and determine how much of your leftover income should be allocated to gifts for weddings, as well as baby showers and birthdays. The gift amount could be anywhere from $25 to $100 a month, depending on your financial situation.

“Buy your gift in advance if you are going to buy a gift,” Broadway added. “I think a lot of times the reason people overspend is because they’re literally picking something up on the way to the wedding.”

Kate Zepernick and her husband, Trey, attended 12 weddings last year. Zepernick, founder of TheBrideBoss.com, a website that helps brides set up wedding budgets, says she has a monthly gift budget. She purchases gifts ahead of time so she’s actually using that money each month.

“Even if a wedding is in July, I may not have a wedding in April and I may go ahead and purchase a gift for that July wedding in April so I drain that portion of my budget,” Zepernick says.

Allocate Travel Funds Early

In addition to buying the present, wedding guests may have to spend more on hotels and travel, such as airfare or gas, if the wedding is out of town.

A 2016 American Express survey of 1,800 people found that, on average, Americans attend three weddings a year and spend about $703 on each. Millennials, as a cohort, spent about $893 per wedding. And millennials who were in a wedding spent closer to $928.

Broadway says if you know you’re going to have to travel for a wedding, start researching the costs and setting aside money as soon as you get the save-the-date. She recently worked with a client who was going to travel to a wedding in September, another in October, and another in November. They worked together to figure out a ballpark figure of what each wedding would cost so the client could start saving right away for not just the travel but also the gifts.

Zepernick, who lives in Atlanta, says she starts planning even earlier by keeping an eye on social media.

“I keep a mental note when I see someone get engaged and I think I’ll be invited,” she says. “I try to keep a mental note: ‘You’re from Atlanta, that’s not going to be travel for me. OK, you’re from Ohio, that will be travel.’”

Calculate Wedding Party Costs

If you’re in the wedding party, costs like the bridesmaid’s dress, tuxedo rental, and travel to the bachelor or bachelorette party can add up even further. Don’t forget about potentially spending on pre-wedding gifts.

A 2015 American express survey found on average Americans treated their closest friends and family members well by spending $77 for bridal shower gifts, $86 for bachelorette/bachelor party gifts, and $89 for engagement party gifts.

Mitchell says proper etiquette does call for bringing a separate gift to the wedding. But if you’re buying additional gifts for the couple throughout their engagement, it’s OK to spend a little bit less on the actual wedding present.

“It just does not have to be the most expensive thing on the wedding registry,” Mitchell says.

Contributing to a group gift from the wedding party can also help you save money while making sure the couple receives a big-ticket item from their registry.

Zepernick, who is a maid of honor in a friend’s upcoming wedding, says she’s been “showering her with gifts throughout her entire engagement period.”

“It’s more important to me to be kind of consistently doing that than to kind of blow it all on a big gift at the end,” she says.

The post How Much Should I Spend on a Wedding Gift? appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

How the 72-Hour Rule Can Help You Save Money

Clock time deadline

How often do you make an impulse purchase, only to regret it the next day?

Journalist and money expert Carl Richards  came up with the “72-hour rule” to kick his habit of buying every book he wanted on Amazon, ending up with a pile of unread books.

Now, he says he lets a book sit in his shopping cart for at least 72 hours before hitting “buy,” and he’s saving money only buying books he will actually read. You can apply a similar practice to your spending habits.

Why wait 72 hours?

Our brains respond positively to instant gratification. It’s why so many of us find it difficult to save money or lose weight. We want the item or food now, and when there’s nothing stopping us, why wait?

You need the space between receiving the money and spending it to think. The shorter that space is, the less time you have to think and the more likely you are to spend the funds impulsively.

Tax refunds are a prime example of a time when it can be tricky to control your urge to spend. Tax refunds averaged $2,860 in 2016, according to the IRS. This year, a SunTrust survey found about 1 in 4 Americans already planned to spend their refund money on a large purchase before they even received the funds. That proportion rises to 36% among millennials and 40% among Gen-Xers, according to SunTrust.

“People often look at their tax refund as found money like lottery winnings or inheritance. The temptation to spend surprise money on something fun or frivolous is strong,” says Denver, Colo.-based Certified Financial Planner Kristi Sullivan.

You want to avoid doing that. Your tax refund isn’t lottery winnings or an inheritance. It’s your hard-earned money being returned to you with no interest gained.

That’s not great, considering the average citizen admits they can’t pull together $400 in case of an emergency.

Kinney says “hitting the pause button on spending impulses gives the rational brain time to think” of more practical ways to use the money like getting out of debt, contributing to a college savings fund, or adding to your savings.

Although he acknowledges when you’re living paycheck to paycheck, it’s a little harder to resist a sudden — albeit predictable — boost to this month’s budget.

“People feel constrained by their paycheck all through the year, then suddenly this windfall of money gives them the ability to splurge. The temptation can be hard to resist,” says Kinney.

Here are a few ways you can manage the temptation, and the time.

Make your priorities clear

Once you know what your financial goals are — whether they are saving up for a new car or paying down student debt — the key is to look at every financial choice and determine whether or not it will help or hurt your progress toward that goal.

“A need that you haven’t already bought is rare. Wants are everywhere. Time to reflect might have you making a more mature decision with your money,” says Sullivan.

Do some soul searching to see where your financial priorities lie. You might find your need to pay off your credit card this month to avoid paying more in interest outweighs how badly you want that new gadget. Think about it.

Emergency fund and debt comes first

“Sit down and think about other pressing financial issues, and how you plan on paying for them,” says David Frisch, a Melville, N.Y.-based financial planner. He suggests you review bank statements, brokerage accounts, long-term goals, and other financial considerations, then give some thought to whether or not you’re on track to achieve them.

For example, if you realize you don’t have enough in your emergency fund to cover three to six months of expenses, you might decide to put the money there instead of spending it. Or, if your refund could completely pay off a high-interest debt like a credit card, you might decide to free yourself from the debt burden.

Treat yourself

Holding back on purchasing something you really want can be painful, but it doesn’t have to be complete torture. Sullivan suggests taking the edge off with a small reward for each day you wait. It’s a lot like crash dieting, which experts agree never works. If you deprive yourself of too many small pleasures for too long, you might see a donut one day (or maybe that new iPhone) and not just buy one but the whole dozen. But if you have a treat once in awhile, you might not be as likely to binge later.

Just make sure the reward you choose isn’t too expensive, and you should avoid getting into more debt. Your “reward” could serve as a break while you comb through your finances.

The takeaway

Take some time to think before spending whenever you receive unexpected income, and you might make better spending decisions. Maybe you need only 24 hours, instead of 72, or maybe you need a little longer to decide what to do with money, but the same lesson applies. If you’re considering a purchase that’s a “want” and not a “need,” think before you buy.

The post How the 72-Hour Rule Can Help You Save Money appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

How to Save on Your Next Family Vacation

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

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

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

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

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

National and State Parks

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

 

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

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

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

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

Stick Close to Home

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

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

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

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

Visit with Relatives

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

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

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

Volunteer + Vacation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go Where the U.S. Dollar Is Strongest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What To Do if Your Insurance Doesn’t Cover a Health Care Provider

Smiling senior man having measured blood pressure

It’s a pretty common scenario: you’re looking to book a medical appointment, so you go to your insurance company’s website to find an in-network doctor. You book the appointment, see the doctor, and all seems well — until you get a whopping bill. Apparently, that doctor wasn’t in your network after all, and now you’re faced with out-of-network charges.

This happens more often than we think. Unfortunately, insurance company websites are notoriously fallible. Not only that, but they change so frequently that it can be difficult to nail down just who is and isn’t covered. At some point or another, just about everyone will have to deal with a situation where their insurance doesn’t cover a provider.

It’s easy to feel duped in this scenario. Navigating the ins and outs of insurance is hard enough, but there’s nothing more frustrating than being fed incorrect information.

So what should you do?

What to Do If You’ve Already Gotten the Bill

Call the doctor

Doctors don’t usually consider themselves responsible for significant out-of-pocket costs resulting from a lack of research on the part of the patient.

But if you asked the doctor or their representative about insurance coverage beforehand, you should contact them immediately if that information ends up being false. Many physicians will honor the price they initially told you or at least give a hefty discount. Don’t get discouraged if they don’t get back to you right away. Keep calling to see if you can get a lower price.

Negotiate and ask for a better rate

Most doctors have two different rates: one for insurance companies and one for self-pay individuals. If your doctor’s visit isn’t going to be covered by your insurance, call the doctor’s billing department to ask for the self-pay cost.

“Most physician offices will accept a lesser amount, especially if they know the service is not going toward a deductible,” said health insurance agent Natalie Cooper of Best Quote Insurance of Ohio.

Ask about a payment plan if you can’t afford to pay the bill in one go. Most medical offices would rather get the money a little bit at a time than not at all.

“Most physician and hospital groups will accept a small payment of $25 or $50 per month until it’s paid off,” Cooper said.

Use a health savings account

If you’re struggling to pay a medical bill out of pocket, see if you can open an HSA and use those funds to pay for it. If you owe $2,000, you can transfer $2,000 to an HSA and then pay the doctor directly from that account.

What’s the benefit? HSA contributions are deductible on your taxes. Unfortunately, only people with high-deductible plans are eligible to start an HSA. Individuals can only contribute up to $3,400 a year or $6,750 in an HSA. You can start an HSA anytime if you have an eligible healthcare plan.

The IRS says you can only use your HSA to pay for qualified medical expenses, a list of which you can find here. Funds in an HSA roll over from year to year, and you can contribute up to $3,400 annually or $6,750 for families.

You can also open a Flex Spending Account, which works similarly to an HSA. However, funds don’t roll over to the next year and users can only contribute $2,550 a year.

How to Prevent Out-of-Pocket Expenses

Ask beforehand

Many people use the insurance company’s website to find a doctor, but those lists are often out of date. Insurance information can even change daily. The only way to confirm a doctor’s status with an insurance company is to call them directly and ask if they’re a network provider — not just if they accept your insurance.

“When they are a network provider, they are contractually required to accept no more than the negotiated contracted rate as payment in full, which is usually less than the billed rate,” said human resources expert Laurie A. Brednich. “When they say they ‘accept xyz insurance,’ they are usually not a network provider, but will file the claims on your behalf, and you are responsible for the full billed charges.”

It can also be helpful to give them your insurance group and account numbers beforehand so there’s no question about your specific policy. The more specific you can be, the more accurately you’ll be able to navigate the insurance labyrinth.

Find out if all procedures and doctors are covered

Have you ever been to a doctor who’s recommended you see a specialist for a certain procedure — only to find out that the specialist isn’t covered by your insurance, even though they’re in the same building?

When a doctor recommends you to a colleague, they’re not confirming that the other physician is covered in-network. Before you make the appointment, talk to the billing department to see what their policies are. You can request an estimate in writing beforehand so you’ll have an idea of what the costs will be.

Some procedures might not be covered even if they’re being ordered by your in-network doctor. If your doctor sends your results to a lab, that lab might be out of network, even if your insurance covers the doctor who ordered them.

Confirm the lab’s status before you go in. If it’s too late, call your insurance and ask if they can bill the service as in-network. Cite the fact that you weren’t aware the lab would not be covered.

If they refuse, contact the doctor’s office and explain your situation. Ask them why they used an out-of-network provider and see if they’re willing to write off the bill. Be polite, but firm.

Ask the doctor to apply

When Julie Rains’ insurance changed to a preferred provider plan, she discovered her trusted doctor was now going to be out of network. Instead of searching for a replacement, she asked if her physician would apply to the insurance company to be covered by her new plan. He agreed.

It took almost two months for him to be accepted, Rains said. If you’re going this route, it’s best to start as soon as you find out your insurance company has changed policies. Rains said between the time she found out about the changes and when they went into effect, her doctor had already been approved.

You might have less luck with a doctor you’ve only been seeing for a short time, but most medical professionals take long-term patient relationships seriously — especially if your whole family goes to the same office. As always, it doesn’t hurt to ask.

The post What To Do if Your Insurance Doesn’t Cover a Health Care Provider appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

How to Use Truebill to Identify & Cancel Recurring Subscriptions

 

Have you ever forgotten to cancel a subscription that charges you automatically each month? Me, too.

Thanks to Apple Music album exclusives, I’ve racked up quite a few charges from a subscription that I initially planned to cancel right after the free trial.

Truebill is an app that wants to make you aware of all the seemingly low-cost subscriptions that can add up to a lot of money spent. Truebill uses an algorithm to help you identify and cancel recurring payments made from your credit cards and bank accounts so you can find savings.

We tried out the app to see whether or not using it to cut costs is worthwhile. In this post, we’ll cover:

  • How it works
  • Truebill extra features
  • The cost
  • Pros and cons

How Truebill Works

You need to download the Truebill app from iTunes or GooglePlay to get started. The app lets you sign up for a Truebill account by email or Facebook.

Truebill mobile interface

After you create an account, the next step is signing into your credit card and bank accounts through Truebill so that it can review your account data. I signed into one bank account and one credit card account for this trial.

Truebill mobile interface connect accounts

The results of the Truebill statement scan

Truebill scan of bills

The results of the account scan will appear in your app dashboard within a few minutes.

Recurring transactions found are broken down into three categories — subscriptions, recurring bills, and miscellaneous recurring payments.

Here’s what Truebill found from my accounts:

For subscriptions:

  • A recurring Express Scripts prescription charge
  • Payments for monthly services I use to run a business including:
    • ConvertKit
    • FreshBooks
    • Grammarly
    • GoDaddy

For recurring bills and utilities:

  • An annual credit card membership fee
  • A Comcast bill
  • An insurance bill

For recurring miscellaneous payments: 

  • A Bluehost monthly service charge
  • An iTunes (Hulu) monthly subscription

All of the above are current recurring payments that I’m making periodically.

Truebill also has a section that lists your inactive recurring payments.

Inactive payments are for past recurring items that are no longer posting to your account regularly.

In my inactive section, Truebill has recurring transactions and subscriptions from as far back as 2013, including old student loan payments, car note payments, and more.

If you discover that Truebill is missing a subscription, there’s an option to enter the service name, and Truebill will perform another search on your account.

Truebill no results screen show

You can reach out to a customer service representative for extra help if Truebill still can’t locate a subscription after doing this search.

Does Truebill Find All the Sneaky Costs?

The current auto-payments that show up for me are ones I already know about. I’m also someone who pays pretty close attention to every account transaction so I didn’t expect any surprises.

Despite being aware of these auto-payments, I still find it impressive how many past and present recurring transactions the algorithm picked up on. I can see how this tool can be a shortcut for catching pesky auto-payments in one fell swoop for someone who monitors their statements a little less frequently.

I did learn something new related to very old charges.

Truebill found a questionable Home Depot Project Loan transaction from 2013 and was unsure whether or not to mark it as an old inactive recurring payment.

Truebill Home Depot loan

I’ve never taken out a Home Depot Project Loan, so that’s a charge I plan on researching.

How to Cancel Recurring Payments

The second key feature of Truebill is that it helps you cancel these services.

You’re able to terminate many subscriptions within the app itself. When you click on a specific subscription, there’s an “Options” link, and then a red button to “cancel” the subscription appears.

Truebill cancel ConvertKit

However, the option to cancel isn’t available for all services on auto-payment. This is the case for my Express Scripts recurring payment below.

Truebill cancel subscription

If cancellation isn’t an option, you can head over to the Truebill cancellation page for additional instructions.

On this page, there’s a mega list of companies with directions on how to cancel services from each one. The list includes insurance companies, telephone companies, music streaming services, gyms, and more.

You need to fill out more information about yourself for Truebill to move forward with the cancellation of Express Scripts. The site gives a phone number you can call to cancel on your own. For some companies, Truebill even has video instructions on how to cancel a service.

Truebill form to cancel subscriptions

Truebill Extras to Lower Your Bills

Canceling isn’t the only action you can take to cut costs. The app also notifies you of opportunities to renegotiate contract terms for bills like cable, internet, and insurance to save money.

According to the app, my Comcast bill is high, and it recommends using the BillShark service to negotiate a lower bill. BillShark is a partner of Truebill and renegotiates contracts for consumers. If BillShark can lower your bill, it takes a 40% cut of the savings as a service fee. You do not have to pay a dime if BillShark isn’t able to reduce your bill.

I got a notification that my insurance bill seems high as well. The app refers me to a third party called SolidQuote to shop for competitive insurance rates.

We’ll talk a little bit more about these recommendations in the next section.

The Cost of Truebill

The Truebill app is entirely free to download and use. The one extra service that you may have to pay for is BillShark if you choose to use it to renegotiate your bill contracts. Technically, you’re not paying out of pocket for this service either. You will only pay if BillShark is able to find you savings.

How Does Truebill Make Money?

On the terms and conditions page, there’s mention of Truebill having sponsored links to third parties and advertisements. Truebill may receive compensation from recommending other companies to you.

For example, under the suggestion to shop for competitive insurance quotes with SolidQuote, there’s a link to an advertiser disclosure stating Truebill can get paid for the referral.

Truebill advertiser disclosure

You do not have to sign up for any of these third-party offers to use the service for free. You can simply avoid offers throughout the app and still benefit from using it.

Truebill Security

Truebill uses 256-bit encryption and bank-level security to protect your information. The account history used from your financial institutions to manage auto-payments is read-only, and your information is not stored by Truebill servers. Find out more about Truebill security here.

Pros and Cons

Pros:

  • Truebill is free for users.
  • The app is simple to use and reviews your accounts for subscription information quickly.
  • It shows you both active and inactive recurring payments.
  • You may be able to cancel bills with one click on the app. If you can’t cancel through the app, there are instructions on how you can terminate contracts with many companies on the website. Some cancellation instructions even include step-by-step video tutorials.

Cons:

  • There are advertisements to special offers on the app. These offers are not too distracting, but you should be aware that recommendations may be from paid affiliates.
  • The Truebill algorithm works by analyzing your account data. You need to sign in to your financial accounts for it to do its magic. If that’s a turnoff, you won’t get much use from this app.

The Final Verdict

The Truebill app is easy to use and definitely one to consider if you might be flushing money down the toilet with random subscriptions and services. The fact that it shows both current and past subscriptions is a highlight because it’s also helpful to review how much you’ve spent on these recurring payments in the past few years.

The post How to Use Truebill to Identify & Cancel Recurring Subscriptions appeared first on MagnifyMoney.

Clever Ways to Reduce or Eliminate Your Housing Costs

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

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

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

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

Be Energy Efficient

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

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

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

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

Put Your Bills on Autopay

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

Appeal Your Property Taxes

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

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

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

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

Shop Around for Insurance

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

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

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

Become a DIYer

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

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

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

Rethink Your Home Purchase Plan

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

Larger Down Payment

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

Refinance Your Mortgage

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

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

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

Pay Cash for Your Home

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

Drastically Change Your Lifestyle

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

Get a Roommate (or Two)

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

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

Buy a Multifamily Unit, Rent One Unit Out

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

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

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

Downsize

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

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

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