The Fastest Way to Save for a House

There are a few ways to expedite that down payment.

Once you’ve decided it’s time to buy your own home, saving for that 20% down payment is step one toward doing it. Instead of waiting years, here are six ways to help you save up for that down payment in a matter of months.

1. Explore the Market

If you are saving money to buy your dream home, consider taking a detour through a lower-priced neighborhood first. Buying a lower-cost home means you won’t have to save as long for the down payment. As the home’s value goes up, you can use the equity you’ve built to help you get into a higher-priced home later on, particularly if you find a fixer-upper and you’re good at repairs.

2. Keep Your Priorities in Focus

While it may be tempting to put off other priorities when trying to save for an important goal, Kevin Gallegos, vice president of Phoenix operations at Freedom Financial Network, says paying the rent should always be your first priority. Next, Gallegos says, pay down credit card debt.

“Few, if any, investments will return as much,” he explains. Additionally, having more available credit on your card will improve your debt-to-income ratio and creates a financial cushion that you may need for unexpected costs after moving in to your new home.

3. Automate Your Savings

You can create a budget based on your current expenses to determine how much you can save each month. Once you have determined how much you can afford to save, automatically transfer that amount from your checking account to a savings account.

“Save before you ever have the money in your hand,” Gallegos says. “Record this expense like a bill every month.”

4. Generate More Income

To raise money quickly, Gallegos says it pays off to turn your spare time into money-making opportunities. Look around your apartment for unneeded items to sell online or have a yard sale.

“Even small proceeds can accumulate surprisingly quickly,” he says. “Maybe you have skills where you can turn a hobby into a part-time, money-making enterprise. Babysit, tutor, do yard work or other part-time work.”

5. Track Your Daily Expenses

Before pulling out your wallet, ask yourself how badly you need to buy something. For example, if there is free coffee at work, do you really need to go to the coffee shop every morning? Gallegos admits it sounds cliché to ask such questions, “yet this is just the type of disciplined act that will get someone on track to saving as much as possible as quickly as possible,” he says.

To further reduce daily spending, Gallegos recommends paying with cash instead of using a debit or credit card. “Many studies report that people spend up to 15 to 20% less when paying with cash,” he says.

6. Reduce Household Expenses

There are many ways to reduce monthly expenses at home that can help build your savings for a down payment more quickly. Washing clothes in cold water saves up to 90% of the energy expended in the washing cycle, notes Gallegos. Switching to cold water will directly reduce next month’s utility bill. Plus, speaking of laundry, skip the dryer. That’ll eliminate carbon emissions and help you bank away extra dollars, he adds.

You should also eliminate drafts in your home and turn the hot water temperature down to 120 degrees, which will save you money. Per EnergyStar.gov, a house’s water heater “can waste anywhere from $36 to $61 annually in standby heat losses and more than $400 in demand losses.”

Implementing only one of these ideas may not increase your savings significantly, but if you try a few of them, it can make a real difference to your savings account after a few months and get you on the right track to having enough for your new home.

[Editor’s Note: A good credit score can make buying a new home more affordable, too, since it’ll help you qualify for a low interest rate. You can see where your credit stands by viewing two of your scores for free on Credit.com.]

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50 Things to Do If You Plan to Sell Your Home This Spring

Sure, it's a seller market. But getting the best price for your house involves more than just putting down For Sale sign stakes.

Have you heard? It’s a seller’s market. Well, in most zip codes at least. But a hopping homebuying season doesn’t necessarily mean your home will go well over asking price just by putting up a For Sale sign. There’s still plenty a seller must do if they want to get the best price for their soon-to-be-former digs.

Here are 50 things to do if you plan to sell your home this spring.

1. Learn the Market

The reports of a seller’s market are greatly exaggerated — which is to say every zip code is different. If you want to expedite a sale, your “property has to be marketed properly and be priced appropriately,” said Glenn S. Phillips, CEO of Lake Homes Realty. “The feeding frenzy of a few years ago has not returned, and buyers are better informed than ever.”

2. Avoid Over-Pricing

Gradual price drops signal to house hunters that more decreases are to come, Phillips says. Plus, if your home sits on the market long enough, prospective buyers will wonder what’s wrong with it. “In the end, most homes that start overpriced sell at a price lower than a home priced [appropriately] from the start,” he said. “And the deal happens much faster and without the pain of months trying to sell.”

3. Hire a Realtor

Yes, you’ll have to pay them a commission. (Side note: You’ll be expected to cover the buyer’s agent, too.) Still, a good Realtor can be instrumental when it comes to the whole “learn-the-market, price-it-right” stuff. Plus, they’ll do the heavy lifting when showing the house and negotiating offers. Of course, be sure to …

4. Vet Prospective Agents

“Find someone who is in the business full time and who can demonstrate their skill at listing a house,” Reba Haas, CEO of Team Reba at RE/MAX Metro Inc. in Seattle, said. “This will show up in their print materials, online photos, services provided marketing presentation and ability to find the right price range to help you sell in a reasonable amount of time.”

5. Get a Home Estimate …

Yes, your real estate agent can help you set the right price on your home, but it doesn’t hurt to get a general idea of the pricing in your area on your own. There are plenty of sites online that can help you get an idea of your home’s current value.

6. Or, Better Yet, a Pre-Listing Appraisal

That’ll help preclude any problems during the bank appraisal. “An independent appraisal performed prior to listing can determine the value that a lender would assign your home,” Bruce Elliott, president of the Orlando Regional REALTOR Association, said. “While the process is never scientific, many buyers do find an independent appraisal to be a credible source for judging a home’s value.”

7. Determine How Much the Sale Will Cost You

Because there are plenty of expenses associated with selling a home. “A lot of sellers are not aware of what their costs are, including attorney, commission to broker and any other closing costs, including potential repairs before putting the home on the market,” says Kobi Lahav, managing director, Mdrn. Residential, a real estate brokerage in New York City. Fortunately, your broker or listing agent can help you pin down a rough estimate of what you might have to shell out.

8. Hire an Attorney

They’ll be instrumental when it comes time to negotiate the purchase contract with your chosen buyer, but you’ll, of course, want to …

9. Research Their Reputations (& Fees)

Ask friends and family for recommendations, or do a search online to find an affordable real estate attorney you can trust.

10. Ask for a Mortgage Pay Off Quote

You may think you know how much you owe on your mortgage. However, “it is not always what you see on your lender’s website,” Denise Supplee, co-founder of SparkRental and Pennsylvania Realtor, says. “And it is a good idea to have that information, especially if the money from your sale is going towards another sale.”

11. Build Your Coffers

Like we said, selling your home can be very costly. Be sure you’ve got an adequate emergency fund on hand to cover the costs, moving expenses and mortgage or rent associated with your next abode.

12. Check State Tax Records

“Make sure any debts you thought you paid off, were, in fact, posted in municipality tax records [and] satisfied,” Janice B. Leis, Accredited Buyer’s Representative and associate broker with Berkshire Hathaway, says. “Otherwise, you will have an arduous task getting issues resolved if faced with either a quick closing or finding out by the title company near closing, when life is hectic.”

13. Consult an Accountant

Or a trusted financial adviser before putting down For Sale stakes. They can fill you in on any tax deductions or bills associated with the sale that you’ll be expected to pay next year, Leis says.

14. Pull Your Credit Reports

In addition to liens, look for any judgments because those can go against the title of your home. “I have seen … people who thought they were getting X amount of dollars find out that they owe back taxes from many years ago,” Supplee says. (You can pull your free annual credit reports at AnnualCreditReport.com.) If you’re also searching for a new home while you’re trying to sell yours, well, then, you’ll want to …

15. Get Your Full Credit Check On

Because the better your credit score, the more affordable your new mortgage will be. Check for credit report errors, because they may be needlessly weighing you down. If you find one, be sure to …

16. Dispute Any Errors …

You can go here to learn how to handle errors on your credit report.

17. … & Otherwise Shore Up Your Scores

Beyond that, pay down high credit card balances, limit new credit inquiries and address any other credit-score killers to improve your credit scores. You can monitor your progress using your free credit report summary, along with two free credit scores, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.

18. Set Realistic Deadlines

“It takes a lot of time to prepare a home for sale,” Haas says. “Be realistic in what you can do, and consider where you may need help from family, friends or by hiring professionals.”

19. Map Out Your Move

“If coinciding with a closing and purchase, make sure there is a contingency in your purchase contract,” Reis says. “Otherwise you owe on two properties or will be in default on new purchase due to lack of proceeds from the sale of your existing home.”

20. Get a Pre-Home Inspection Home Inspection

Sure, it’ll cost you. Still, “spending a few hundred dollars on a thorough home inspection can help you get a better idea of what repairs need to be made, and more importantly, what your net proceeds will be from the sale of your home,” Emile L’Eplattenier, a New York City real estate agent and member of the Real Estate Board of New York, says.

21. Make Any Major Repairs …

Pay particular attention to roof and air conditioning issues, as buyers tend to shy from expensive repairs, Elliott says. “Completing as many repairs as your budget allows will pay off when potential buyers are not put off by the amount of time or money they would need to bring the home up to speed,” he adds.

22. … & Consider Some Small Upgrades

“Replacing old curtains and blinds or even appliances and fixtures will make your home look better in pictures and on showings,” L’Eplattenier says. At the very least …

23. Paint

So long as you don’t use one of these four colors, of course. By the way …

24. Carefully Consider Major Home Improvement Projects

Fix the roof, sure. Have the AC serviced, but consult with your Realtor or stager before blinging out the bathroom or wallpapering the basement. Certain home improvements that seem like a good idea may not actually bring any value to your home — or, worse, could be a turnoff to potential buyers. (We’re looking at you, outdoor bathtub.)

25. Get Your Disclosures Ready

Though there are variations by city or state, some types of seller’s disclosure are generally mandated by law. “If you know of an issue in your home, write it down on the disclosure form provided by your Realtor,” Elliott says. “Nothing is too small to disclose, and failing to disclose is a serious breach of real estate law that can undermine the sale or worse.”

26. Trim the (Furniture) Fat

“Too much furniture makes a home look smaller than it really is, so sell or move out furniture to make the home feel more spacious,” Phillips says.

27. Tap a Photographer …

And consider hiring a professional. Solid listing photos make a big difference when it comes to getting buyers over to your house.

28. … But Clean Your Windows Before Showings

“Multi-exposure photography … will make the photos really stand out, but if the windows are dirty, you don’t get the best shots,” Haas says. “Plus, cleanliness in general just makes for a better showing.”

29. Actually, Clean Everything

We’re spelling this out just in case you hadn’t taken the initiative to do so already. “Nothing turns buyers off like grime, odor and general dinginess,” Elliott says.

30. Grout & Glaze

“How does the bathroom look?” Max says. “Do you need to reglaze the tub or put new grout on the tile?”

31. Set the Stage

Your Realtor can provide some valuable insights into how to organize your (leftover) furniture. “Stagers can also help you organize your furniture, and they can bring in just a few pieces that accentuate the positives of your home,” Kathryn Bishop, Realtor with Keller Williams Realty in Studio City, California, says.

32. Change the Light Bulbs

Lighting can be just as important as furniture feng shui when it comes to attracting homebuyers.

33. Up Your Curb Appeal

“Neatly trimmed bushes, fresh mulch and a colorful pot of flowers work wonders on that all-important first impression,” Elliott says. “Repainting (or washing) the front door and pressure cleaning the driveway and sidewalks are also simple tasks that provide eye-catching results.”

34. Find a Place for Fido

Sure, Sparky is cute and all, but you’ll want your pets out of the house during any showings. Plus, “it will always bring questions about any pet damage or difficult-to-remove smells,” Phillips says. Speaking of smells …

35. Deodorize …

Homeowners become smell blind and don’t realize how powerful smell is to homebuyers,” he says. “The home should smell fresh and clean, not perfumed and not like cats, dogs, cigarette smoke, old furniture, mothballs, mold, old food, gym locker or just plain stale.”

36. … De-Personalize …

Pack away those personal pictures and mementos. “Removing these items helps buyers imagine themselves in the home,” Phillips says.

37. … De-Clutter …

That goes beyond offloading some excess furniture and your picture words. Bottom line: It’s time to put all those books, toys, video games and figurines away. “The more crowded the apartment is, the smaller it appears,” Stacey Max, the sales manager of BOND New York, a residential brokerage, says.

38. … & Detach

“Sellers are usually emotionally attached to their homes, which is natural,” Lahav says. “However, they have to remember that any potential buyer is looking at it without the emotional aspect that the owner has for his own property.”

39. Clean Out Your Closets …

“They should look roomy,” Max says.

40. … & Your Drawers

“We all say that one day we will go into all the rooms and drawers and throw out a lot of old items,” Lahav says. “Selling your home is the best time to do it.” In fact, while you’re at it, go ahead and …

41. Start Packing

You’ll have to do it sooner or later. Might as well get a head start.

42. Store

You don’t have to junk all your belongings — or avoid decluttering just because you don’t want to part with your old Buffy the Vampire Slayer box sets. Consider renting out a storage space or keeping some stuff over at a friend’s or family member’s place while you’re trying to sell.

43. Talk to Your Neighbors

Consider this part of your curb appeal project — especially if you’re selling an apartment, co-op or condo. “You want your neighbors to be aware that there will be open houses,” Lahav says. “Buyers coming to view your home and see unhappy neighbors who look mad that the elevator [doesn’t] work or the driveway is blocked will assume that the neighbors are nasty, and that can affect their decision.”

44. Do a Final Walk-Through

Just to be sure there’s nothing you missed with regard to repairs, curb appeal or staging your home.

45. Advertise Amply

“Some sellers believe that it is OK to not put the home on the local MLS, that the agents in the area will just bring the perfect buyer,” Phillips says. “While this could happen, it rarely does. Doing this is like trying to sell a secret. The price does not matter because few buyers know the house is even for sale.”

46. Host an Open House

“Recently, my listings have all sold to buyers who came to the open houses,” Bishop says. Beyond that …

47. Be Available

“Appointments often come with only an hour’s notice,” she adds. “Work as smoothly as possible with your Realtor to accommodate showings.”

48. Adjust …

If you find you did list your home for more than it’s worth, go ahead and change your listing. (Again, consulting with your Realtor can come in handy here.)

49. … & Stay Flexible

“We’ve seen purchases fall apart over very small amounts of money, over a single appliance and over attitudes,” Phillips says. “Remember the big picture and how much it will cost to start over finding another willing and capable buyer. [Getting] the deal closed is often the best financial (and emotional) choice, even if you have to give up a little more than you wanted.”

50. Brush Up on Your Homebuying Skills

Chances are, you’ll be buying a new abode before or after you sell your current one, so you’ll want to go refamiliarize yourself with that process as well. Fortunately, we’ve got 50 things you should do as a house hunter right here.

Got more questions about the homebuying process? Ask away in the comments section, and one of our experts will try to help!

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6 Hacks for Using the Citi ThankYou Points Program

Here's how to get the most out of your Citi rewards credit card points.

If you surveyed a group of people about credit cards, it’s likely they would say pretty much the same thing: Their favorite cards are part of a transferable points program. That’s because these cards tend to have the most flexibility when it comes to redeeming rewards. One of these programs is Citi ThankYou. (Full Disclosure: Citibank advertises on Credit.com, but that results in no preferential editorial treatment.)

Over the past several years, Citi has made several changes to the ThankYou program to help it keep up with Chase Ultimate Rewards and Amex Membership Rewards. Two of the most noticeable changes are the selection of credit cards that allow you to earn ThankYou points and the airline transfer partners. Let’s take a look at how you can hack your Citi ThankYou points for maximum value.

1. Transfer Points to Loyalty Partners

One area where the Citi ThankYou program has improved over the past couple of years is with the quality of transfer partners. Unless noted below all partners transfer at a 1:1 ratio.

  • Jetblue (1,000:500)
  • Cathay Pacific
  • Etihad
  • Eva Air
  • Air France/KLM
  • Garuda Indonesia
  • Malaysia Airlines
  • Quantas
  • Qatar Airways
  • Singapore Airlines
  • Thai Airways
  • Virgin Atlantic
  • Hilton (1,000:1,500)

While the list of partners continues to grow, not all of them are a good use of your points. To get the most value, you could redeem points for one of these rewards:

Continental U.S. to Hawaii on Singapore Airlines

From the United States, one of the best uses for Singapore Airlines miles is to fly to Hawaii. One-way flights in coach, business class, and first class cost 17,500, 30,000 and 40,000 miles, respectively. Compare this to United Airlines, which charges 22,500, 40,000 and 50,000 miles.

Air France/KLM Flying Blue Promo Awards

One of the best ways to use Flying Blue miles is to book their promo awards. Each month, they release new promo routes and you can save 20% to 50% off normal redemption rates.

Continental U.S. to Mexico on Air France/KLM Flying Blue

Flying Blue includes Mexico in the same flight region as the United States, which means flights cost only 12,500 miles each way in coach.

TransAtlantic in Singapore Suites

If you’re tired of always flying coach, you can splurge and spend 57,375 Singapore Krisflyer Miles to fly Singapore Suites from New York to Frankfurt, Germany. If you’d like to continue, you can go all the way to Singapore for a total of 93,500 miles. But be warned: Flying in coach might never be the same.

Use Etihad Guest Miles from New York to Brussels in Business Class

Most airlines are part of large alliances or have partner airlines. This is great for consumers because it opens up a lot of options when using your miles. If you know where to look, you can find a lot of value when flying. One of the best ways to fly to Europe is to use Etihad Guest miles to fly Brussels Airlines from New York to Brussels. Traveling round-trip in economy will cost you 21,972 miles and business class will be 36,620 miles. If you want a card that earns you direct airline miles, here are our picks for some of the best airline miles credit cards out there.

2. Book Travel on Citi Travel Center

Another way to use your ThankYou points is to book your travel through the Citi Travel Center. This is where the specific card you have will dictate the value you receive. If you have a Citi ThankYou Premier card you can redeem your points for 1.25 cents each. Through July 23, those with a Citi ThankYou Prestige card can redeem points on American Airlines for 1.6 cents each and on all other airlines for 1.33 cents. Afterward, redemptions are 1.33 cents on all airlines. For any card that is not Premier or Prestige, you can book travel at just 1 cent per point.

3. Redeem for Cash

You can redeem your points for cash, but this is a pretty weak valuation. You will only receive 0.5 cents per point, but…

4. Pay Your Mortgage or Student Loans

You’ll receive 1 cent of value when you use your points to pay off your mortgage or student loans.

5. Shopping With Points

Citi has partnered with several retailers, making it possible to shop with your points. However, values fluctuate from 0.6 cents to around 1 cent per point, so unless it’s necessary for you to redeem through shopping, there are better ways to redeem points.

6. Gift Cards

Finally, you can also redeem your points for gift cards for select retailers and restaurants. Most of the time you will be able to receive 1 cent per point with this method.

Earning Citi ThankYou Points

Earning Citi ThankYou points is fairly simple. You can use one of a few different Citi credit cards or have select Citi banking products.

Citi Prestige

When you sign up for the Citi Prestige card, you receive 40,000 ThankYou points after spending $4,000 in the first three months. Then, when you use your card for airfare or hotels, you receive 3 points per dollar. You will also receive 2 points per dollar spent at restaurants and on entertainment. Any other purchase made will earn 1 points per dollar. This card has a steep $450 annual fee, but you will receive several travel benefits, including a $250 air travel credit, which you can use for airfare, upgrades, baggage fees and more. You will also receive a $100 statement credit to cover the cost of either Global Entry or TSA Precheck. If that’s not enough, you also receive your fourth night free when booking hotels through Citi Prestige Concierge. Plus, you can travel in comfort knowing you have complimentary access to more than 900 Priority Pass Select airport lounges.

Keep in mind before signing up for this or any rewards card that your credit will need to be in very good shape to qualify. If you’re not sure where your credit stands you can get your two free credit scores, updated every 14 days, right here on Credit.com.

Citi ThankYou Premier

With the Citi ThankYou Premier card, you receive 30,000 ThankYou points after signing up and spending $3,000 in the first three months. You then earn 3 points per dollar spent on travel expenses, which includes gas. Plus, you can earn 2x points when you use your card at restaurants and on entertainment. All other purchases will earn 1x points. There is a $95 annual fee, which is waived for the first year.

Citi ThankYou Preferred

If you prefer a card with no annual fee, then the Citi ThankYou Preferred card might be the best fit. You will earn 15,000 ThankYou points after signing up and spending $1,000 in the first three months. When you use this card at restaurants and on entertainment, you receive 2x points. All other purchases earn 1x points. This card also has an introductory 0% APR on purchases and balance transfers.

Citi ThankYou Preferred Card for College Students

If you’re a college student you can also earn ThankYou points with the Citi ThankYou Preferred card for College Students. With this card, you will earn 2,500 ThankYou points after spending $500 within the first three months. When you use your card at restaurants and on entertainment, you receive 2x points. All other purchases receive 1x points. After signing up for this card you receive an introductory 0% APR for the first seven months on purchases. There is no annual fee to carry this card.

Citi Banking Accounts

While you won’t be able to earn a huge number of points through this method, you can take advantage of the banking relationships you have with Citi. Depending on the product, you could earn up to 19,200 points per year.

Image: freemixer

At publishing time, the Citi Prestige, Citi ThankYou Premier, Citi ThankYou Preferred and Citi ThankYou Preferred for College Students cards are offered through Credit.com product pages, and Credit.com is compensated if our users apply and ultimately sign up for this card. However, this relationship does not result in any preferential editorial treatment. This content is not provided by the card issuer(s). Any opinions expressed are those of Credit.com alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the issuer(s).

 

 

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Got Extra Cash? Here Are 11 Smart Purchases Under $400

Here's a list of smart purchases you should never feel bad about buying.

There’s always a lot of talk about how to be financially responsible and increase wealth with very little money. Many Americans live paycheck to paycheck. But put some real numbers behind that generic statement. The Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey of 2015 reports an average household income per consumer unit (think entire household of family members or single, financially independent people living alone or with other people) is $69,629. And the consumer’s unit average yearly expenses is $55,978.

Let’s say you dedicate those yearly expenses to standard things, such as food, housing, transportation and insurance. While the actual percentage breakdown per expense differs from household to household, depending on your family picture, you’ll still be dedicating a good chunk of your income to various necessities each month.

If we continue with this logic, the money you have left over — that unreasonably small portion of your salary that remains after paying bills — is what many would dub “play money.” The average consumer unit will have about $13,000 a year to play. (Speaking of “play money,” here’s how to stop buying stuff you can’t afford.)

With all that extra cash, what can we do? Of course, we could blow it on a steak dinner or splurge for the newest tech gadget. But what are a few smart items we should buy when we have the opportunity? We’ve compiled a list of smart purchases you should never feel bad about buying. And the best part? They’re all less than $400.

1. Student Loans

The average recent graduate has about $37,172 in student loan debt and pays about $351 per month toward the loan, according to Student Loan Hero. For those who are super strapped for cash, they might choose to defer their loans to a later date or skate by paying just the minimum. But the interest will kill you. One of the smartest things you can do with extra cash is to pay more into your loans when you can afford to do so. It’s a solid bet that added expenses will pop up eventually, and staying ahead of the curve means one less financial burden down the road. (Check out some tips for paying off your student loans here.)

2. An Interview Suit

Even if you’re not in the job market, investing in an interview suit is a wise decision. You never know when you’ll need a go-to outfit for networking events, conferences or a random “I’ve got someone I want you to connect with” meeting. Shopping for the perfect outfit is a lot more bearable when you’re not under duress or in a time crunch. Instead, you can browse for sales. You’ll find cheaper options in many locations, but a nice suit should put you right around that $400 mark. (What else can you do to get yourself ready for a job interview? Check your credit — many employers look at a version of your credit as part of the application process, so it’s helpful to know where yours stands. You can see two of your credit scores — absolutely free — on Credit.com.)

3. A Durable Mattress

What does anything matter if you don’t get a good night’s sleep? When you have extra cash at the end of the month, put it toward a high-quality mattress that will ensure you wake up ready to tackle each morning with spunk. High-quality mattresses come at a price. But they also last for years. You could spend thousands on a name-brand mattress, but a foam mattress from IKEA could work just as well.

4. Digital File Protection

External hard drives and online storage are perfect for backing up all those vacation shots, your wedding album and imperative side-business files. Hard drives are easy to find online, and they’ll run you about $82 for one with worthwhile storage capacity. Online storage pricing varies when it comes to options and personal preferences, but you can choose between services, such as Mozy, Dropbox or SugarSync. These cloud-storage providers charge a monthly fee but give discounts for yearly subscriptions. Expect to pay between $28.98 and $99.99 per year.

5. Online Classes

The most successful people will tell you learning never stops. As workforce trends continue to change, the need for specialized expertise grows. Devoting a few extra bucks to improving your knowledge is a practical expense. Maybe you want to become a better public speaker. Or pick up a new hobby to clear your head at night. And maybe you’ve heard tech gurus ramble about an increasing demand for coding professionals. Buy books, go online and enroll in a course. Do whatever you can to set yourself up for future success.

6. A Commuter Bike

Why spend what you could save? One of the smartest purchases you can make with $400 or less is a commuter bike. When considering what you’d also pay for gas, maintenance and car insurance, a commuter bike will pay for itself. There are definitely good, better and best when it comes to bikes, but you could find a quality road bike for around $300.

7. An Emergency Fund

It’s never a bad idea to start establishing an emergency fund. Experts say three months’ worth of expenses is a reasonable amount of cash to stash away just in case. A good trick is to make your savings automatic. Once you’re unable to see your money coming in, it’s easier to get by without it and find ways to work with what you have. Then, when you break your arm doing back flips off a boat or blow a radiator in your car, it’s covered.

8. Retirement Savings

Expanding on the previous point, try to accumulate as much wealth as you can for early retirement. Consider creating a moderately aggressive investment plan by opening IRAs, 401K accounts, brokerage accounts, etc. Take advantage of your employer opportunities and set up automatic contributions to your company’s 401K plan. Start at a respectable 3% contribution, and gradually increase it until you get to at least 10%. When in doubt, seek a fiduciary financial planner.

9. Solid Clothing

Some of us find it absolutely insane to buy a pair of jeans that cost more than $39.99. However, quality clothing items, such as boots and winter coats, hold up over time. And the money you shell out is worth it later. Reddit’s Buy It for Life adheres to this philosophy. This subreddit aims to “emphasize products that are durable, practical, proven and made to last.” It might seem insane to pay $219 for insulated L.L. Bean Duck Boots, but you’ll be grateful when they’re still keeping your toes warm and dry 10 years later.

10. A Coffee Maker

Does life really exist without coffee? Another smart purchase is to invest in a solid coffee maker. If you fancy those specialty drinks, you could buy a combination machine from DeLonghi for $162 on Amazon. Considering the price of specialty drinks from coffee shops — and our dependency on caffeine — this is a purchase that will pay for itself in a matter of weeks.

11. Various Fitness Programs

There’s no safer bet than to invest in your health. Health equals wealth, right? Whether you buy a treadmill for $399.99 or invest in various meal prep services popular for those always on the go, they’re all worthwhile expenses.

Depending on your employer, you might also be eligible to receive reimbursements for health-related expenses, such as gym memberships, fitness classes or playing in sports leagues. While you’re at it, look into other reimbursement programs you might be eligible for, such as cellphone plans, moving costs or professional-development classes.

This article originally appeared on The Cheat Sheet.  

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This Common Mistake Can Kill Your Mortgage

If you're thinking about buying a home, you'll want to avoid this common mortgage mistake.

In order to qualify for a mortgage, you need to show your lender that you have a down payment and access to funds for closing. This money needs to come from documentable sources prior to moving it from your bank account to your escrow account. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t do this, which can end up creating unnecessary challenges during the underwriting process.

Lenders are going to require at least 60 days of asset documentation from each source that your money comes from. This is required because your mortgage lender will need to verify that the money promised does exist and is eligible for use.

Let’s say you’ve put your money into escrow and, as requested, are doing your best to document the movement of money from the account going to escrow. This entails providing a bank statement specifically showing the money leaving your account and the money being accepted by escrow through an EMD (earnest money deposit).

If you can’t get a bank statement, though — say it’s the middle of the month and new statements are not out yet — the next best thing is to get a bank printout confirming the transaction and confirming the amount of money remaining in the account. (There are literally dozens of other things you also should be thinking about during the home buying process. Here are 50 ways you can get ready for buying your home.)

How a Bank Printout Can Help You Close

The bank printout must show the date of the transaction and the current timestamp of the printout, confirming that the money has been moved prior to the printout date. If the bank printout does not have this information, it will automatically halt the closing process of your loan and delay your loan contingency removal or extend your close of escrow date.

This method can be used for both your down payment and funds for cash to close. This is to provide authenticity for your account and to show clearly on paper that the account is yours and the money is yours to use. Banks and lenders require this information to be clear cut and “in your face.” Never assume that “common sense” will be enough.

Documents & Other Items You’ll Want to Avoid

Providing any of the following items in lieu of the bank printout will not work:

  • A bank statement with someone else’s name on it
  • Bank statement in trust
  • Pictures of bank statements taken from a smartphone or snapshot application
  • Bank printout with no timestamp and date

In addition, the bank printout and timestamp must show the remaining balance that is left in your account. For example, if you had $130,000 in assets and your down payment from this account was $50,000, your account statement should now show $80,000 remaining.

If you are looking to purchase a home, talk to a seasoned loan professional who can walk you through properly documenting the money required to buy your home. Also, take a few minutes to check your credit scores so you’ll know going in what kinds of terms you’re eligible for. You can get your two free credit scores, updated every 14 days, at Credit.com.

Image: GlobalStock

 

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Buying a House? You May Want to Avoid the 30% Rule

The 30% rule is a good place to start, but it’s not always the best gauge of how much should you spend on housing.

Ask someone the question, “How much should I spend on a house?” and there’s a good chance that they will respond with the 30% rule.

The 30% rule, which says not to spend more than 30% of your income on housing, is a good place to start, but it’s not always the best gauge of how much should you spend on housing. You don’t want to base your entire financial situation on it — especially since it’s not exactly clear what that 30% includes.

What Is the 30% Rule?

The 30% rule has been around since the 1930s, according to the Census Bureau. Back then, policymakers were trying to make housing affordable. They came up with the idea that you could spend about 30% of your income on housing and still have enough left for other expenses.

Over time, those numbers started to get used in home loans as well. A rough sketch of what you could afford, in terms of monthly payment, could be obtained by estimating 30% of your income.

Is the 30% Rule Right for You?

When deciding on your own 30% rule, it’s probably a good idea to base it on your take-home pay, rather than your gross income. Let’s say you bring home $3,500 a month. According to the 30% rule, that means you shouldn’t spend more than $1,050 on your housing payment.

Some folks like to use their gross income for this calculation, but that can get you into trouble in the long run. If you base what you spend on housing on an amount that you might not be bringing home, that can stress your budget.

Think about it: If your pre-tax pay is $3,800 a month, that lifts your max housing payment to $1,140. That’s $90 more per month. But the reality is that you are bringing home $300 less than your gross income. Trying to come up with another $90 a month could put a strain on your budget.

Don’t Forget About Extra Costs

You can use a mortgage calculator to figure out how much you should spend on housing. However, such calculators typically just include principal and interest. This doesn’t take into account other monthly homeownership costs.

If you’re thinking of buying an expensive house, don’t forget about other costs like insurance and taxes.

Experts suggest that you base your 30% figure on all your monthly payment costs, not just the principal and interest.

What Percentage of Income Should Be Spent on Housing?

But it goes beyond that for some homebuyers. When looking into buying a home or an affordable place to rent, don’t just base your estimates on your monthly payment. You should also include estimated utility costs and an estimate for maintenance and repairs.

HouseLogic suggests you budget between 1% and 3% of your home’s purchase price annually for repairs and maintenance. I like the idea of budgeting 2%. So, on a $200,000 home, that means you can expect to pay $4,000 for repairs and maintenance — about $333.33 per month.

Once you start adding in all the other aspects of homeownership, suddenly that 30% rule is less cut-and-dry. If you’re more conservative, adding up all the monthly costs of homeownership and keeping it all under 30% makes sense.

You’re less likely to overspend that way. But it might mean a smaller, less expensive home.

Consider the 28/36 Qualifying Ratio

Instead of relying on the 30% rule to answer the question, “How much should I spend on a house?”, consider using the 28/36 qualifying ratio.

According to Re/Max, many lenders use the 28/36 rule to figure out whether your finances can handle your home purchase. The 28 refers to the percentage of your gross monthly income that should be spent on your monthly housing cost. The 36 refers to the percentage of income that goes toward all your debt payments, including your mortgage.

So, if you make $3,800 in take-home pay, your monthly payment should be no more than $1,064. But, things get stickier when you calculate the 36% part of the ratio. Your total debt payments shouldn’t exceed $1,368. That leaves you about $304 for payments of other debts.

Let’s say your credit card and auto loan payments total $500. That means you’re going to have to adjust your expectations for what you can expect to pay for a mortgage. In fact, if your lender insists on the 36 part of the ratio, you have $196 less you can spend on your mortgage payment. And that might mean a less expensive house.

When figuring out what percentage of income you should spend on housing, base the calculations on your take-home pay. Even though Re/Max says many lenders use your gross pay for the 28/36 qualifying ratio, this way you’ll play it safe.

How Much Should I Spend on a House?

Everyone has to answer the “How much should I spend on a house?” question for themselves. However, the biggest reason to ditch the 30% rule is that you might not be comfortable with it.

Are you really comfortable spending 30% of your income each month on your housing? When you consider your other payment obligations, does it makes sense for you to spend so much on housing?

If you aren’t sure about the 30% rule, use your own rule. You might be more comfortable with 25% on all of your housing costs. Or perhaps you modify the rule. Maybe you spend 20% on mortgage and interest and keep your total housing costs to 25% or 28%.

No matter what you decide, the important thing is to be responsible with your finances. Only spend what you feel comfortable with on housing or rent.

Image: Portra

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Americans Are Dying With an Average of $62K of Debt

What happens to your debt after death? Learn how to keep creditors away from your family in a worst-case scenario.

You’re probably going to die with some debt to your name. Most people do. In fact, 73% of consumers had outstanding debt when they were reported as dead, according to December 2016 data provided to Credit.com by credit bureau Experian. Those consumers carried an average total balance of $61,554, including mortgage debt. Without home loans, the average balance was $12,875.

The data is based on Experian’s FileOne database, which includes 220 million consumers. (There are about 242 million adults in the U.S., according to 2015 estimates from the Census Bureau.) Among the 73% of consumers who had debt when they died, about 68% had credit card balances. The next most common kind of debt was mortgage debt (37%), followed by auto loans (25%), personal loans (12%) and student loans (6%).

These were the average unpaid balances: credit cards, $4,531; auto loans, $17,111; personal loans, $14,793; and student loans, $25,391.

That’s a lot of debt, and it doesn’t just disappear when someone dies.

What Does Happen to Debt After You Die?

For the most part, your debt dies with you, but that doesn’t mean it won’t affect the people you leave behind.

“Debt belongs to the deceased person or that person’s estate,” said Darra L. Rayndon, an estate planning attorney with Clark Hill in Scottsdale, Arizona. If someone has enough assets to cover their debts, the creditors get paid, and beneficiaries receive whatever remains. But if there aren’t enough assets to satisfy debts, creditors lose out (they may get some, but not all, of what they’re owed). Family members do not then become responsible for the debt, as some people worry they might.

That’s the general idea, but things are not always that straightforward. The type of debt you have, where you live and the value of your estate significantly affects the complexity of the situation. (For example, federal student loan debt is eligible for cancellation upon a borrower’s death, but private student loan companies tend not to offer the same benefit. They can go after the borrower’s estate for payment.)

There are lots of ways things can get messy. Say your only asset is a home other people live in. That asset must be used to satisfy debts, whether it’s the mortgage on that home or a lot of credit card debt, meaning the people who live there may have to take over the mortgage, or your family may need to sell the home in order to pay creditors. Accounts with co-signers or co-applicants can also result in the debt falling on someone else’s shoulders. Community property states, where spouses share ownership of property, also handle debts acquired during a marriage a little differently.

“It’s one thing if the beneficiaries are relatives that don’t need your money, but if your beneficiaries are a surviving spouse, minor children — people like that who depend on you for their welfare, then life insurance is a great way to provide additional money in the estate to pay debts,” Rayndon said.

How to Avoid Burdening Your Family

One way to make sure debt doesn’t make a mess of your estate is to stay out of it. You can keep tabs on your debt by reviewing a free snapshot of your credit report on Credit.com, in addition to sticking to a budget that helps you live below your means. You may also want to consider getting life insurance (this explains how to know if you need it) and meeting with an estate planning attorney to make sure everything’s covered in the event of your death. If you’re worried about leaving behind debt after death, here’s more on how protect your loved ones.

Poor planning can leave your loved ones with some significant stress. For example, if you don’t have a will or designate beneficiaries for your assets, the law in your state of residence decides who gets what.

“If you don’t write a will, your state of residence will write one for you should you pass away,” said James M. Matthews, a certified financial planner and managing director of Blueprint, a financial planning firm in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Odds are the state laws and your wishes are different.”

It can also get expensive to have these matters determined by the courts, and administrative costs get paid before creditors and beneficiaries. If you’d like to provide for your loved ones after you die, you won’t want court costs and outstanding debts to eat away at your estate.

Image: monkeybusinessimages

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11 Ways to Save If Your Heating & Cooling Bills Are Boiling Over

Heating bills can shoot up as the temperature drops. Here are ways to cut costs while keeping warm.

It’s one of the facts of modern life: Keeping your home the right temperature can get expensive, whether you’re in a studio apartment or a spacious house, you may be paying more than you have to in order to heat your home. Fear not! There are several ways you can cut back on how much you’re spending on temperature control in your home. Here are 11 ways to lower your heating or cooling bill. (And if you’re looking for more ways to save on your monthly home expenses, you can check out these seven easy ways to save on your cable bill.)

1. Seal Your Windows

Windows that are improperly sealed can leak air, losing energy and causing your heating system or air conditioner to work harder.

“Gaps around the window frame allow air to leak, so caulk any gaps in the seals to save on your heating bill,” said Richard Ciresi, owner of Louisville Aire Serve, a heat and air conditioning company.

2. Upgrade Your Windows

You can also upgrade your windows to more energy-efficient models.

“New windows are a big investment, but not one without substantial reward,” said Larry Patterson, a Glass Doctor franchisee. “Replacing your old windows with double or triple-pane energy efficient glass can save you up to 30% on your energy bills.”

3. Get a Programmable Thermostat

Programmable thermostats can cut energy costs by automatically adjusting the temperature while you’re away, reducing the energy wasted on heating or cooling an empty home.

“Investing in a programmable thermostat is one of the simplest ways to save money on your heating, as you set your heating to turn on and off at specific times throughout the day,” said Max Robinson of Turnbull and Scott Heating.

You can program your thermostat to turn off while you sleep or while you’re at work and turn back on when you wake up or get home, Robinson added.

4. Change Your Air Filter

Your furnace uses air filters to keep dust from clogging your vents and circulating through your home. When the filters are dirty, your system has to work harder to push air through. Air filters are affordable and easy to switch out, and doing so will help your heating system run more efficiently. You should swap out new air filters every few months.

5. Open Your Vents

Closed vents can waste a lot of energy. When you turn on your heat, make sure your vents are open.

“Blocked or closed vents and registers make furnaces work harder than they should,” Ciresi said. “Blocked vents do not allow for proper airflow. The furnace will continue to run but the rooms won’t heat up. Always unblock and open all vents and registers before running the furnace.”

6. Reduce Hot Water

The energy spent heating your water contributes to your heating bill. You can reduce your hot water usage a few different ways: Take shorter showers, avoid the hottest water settings and wash your clothes in cold water.

Water heaters are often set at a higher temperature than is needed. You can lower your water heater’s base temperature to 120 degrees, which is sufficiently hot for most household needs.

7. Use a Space Heater for Small Rooms

Smaller rooms can be heated by an electric space heater. While this method still uses electricity, it’s far more energy efficient than using gas heat.

“The rest of the house will be cooler, but this shouldn’t be an issue if your entire family is gathered in one room,” Robinson said.

8. Check Your Outlets

Even your outlets can leak air and reduce the energy efficiency of your home. Make sure to check your outlets for drafts.

“Electrical outlets in exterior walls are usually a major source of drafts, as it is rare for insulation to be used in these areas, and when it is it is often incorrectly installed,” Robinson said. “Luckily it’s easy to correct this. Use a simple foam sealant to fill any gaps around the outlet, and place a gasket over the front of the outlet.”

9. Check Your Insulation

Your walls, attic and other home areas must be properly insulated. If not, the temperature will be much harder to control. Make sure to check your insulation, or hire a professional if you’re not sure how.

10. Find an Alternative Payment Plan

Many energy companies provide alternative payment plans. Some will reduce your bill for reducing your energy consumption, while other plans might lower your payments based on income. Check with your energy provider to see what alternative plans they offer.

If you’re doing things yourself, you may want to consider funding these projects with a store credit card that offers you rewards for your purchases. (You can read our review of the Home Depot credit card here.) Before you apply for any new plastic, it’s always a good idea to review your credit so you know what types of cards you may qualify for. You can see two of your scores free, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.

11. Change Your Attire

If you’re cold, you can always turn down the temperature a few degrees and bundle up. Don’t neglect your feet and head, areas that can lose a lot of body heat. Fuzzy socks and a knit hat should do the trick. And if you’re looking to escape the heat? Try a bathing suit and a cool body of water — You can see 28 ideas on how to save for your next big adventure here.

Inspired to do some renovations? Before you head out to your local hardware store, you may want to check out our 6 ways to save at Lowe’s and Home Depot.

Image: DGLimages

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