When to Use Credit (and When to Avoid It)

person holding credit card and using a laptopIf used carefully, credit can be a helpful financial tool. For example, using credit to purchase a home now, rather than trying to save up the whole purchase price, makes financial sense. The home provides a place to live that will perhaps increase in value and the mortgage interest offers a tax deduction. Credit may also help you deal promptly with costly emergencies.

Many consumers turn to credit when faced with unexpected home or auto repairs, as well as medical emergencies. And credit offers convenience, enabling you to rent a car or hotel room or buy airline tickets over the phone or online. In many situations, credit offers peace of mind; there is no need to carry large amounts of cash when shopping or traveling.

Despite all the advantages and conveniences credit can provide, there are some pitfalls associated with credit use. Credit can be expensive. Interest rates (often ranging from 14% to 22%), finance charges, annual fees, and penalties can dramatically increase the cost of any purchase made on credit. Then, there is a tendency to overspend on credit. It is much easier to spend more than you can afford when all you have to do is pull out the plastic. Over-extension gets thousands of consumers into financial trouble every year.

It is possible to have the best of both worlds, though. Designing a realistic spending and savings plan so you are aware of how much credit you can afford, as well as comparing the cost of credit and shopping around for the best deals, will help you avoid credit trouble.

Here are a few more tips:
Keep your charge receipts in an envelope with a running total on the outside. If the total exceeds an amount you consider appropriate, you know it’s time to curtail your spending.
Save monthly for expenses such as auto maintenance, holiday gifts, and the kids’ school clothes. That way you don’t need to use credit to cover these expenses, or, if you do charge them, you can pay the balance in full when the bill arrives.
Monitor interest rates. Choose lower-rate financing options whenever possible.
Limit the number of open credit card accounts you have. You don’t need more than one or two credit cards, and it’s much easier to keep track of your total outstanding debt with just a couple of accounts.

How Much Debt Is OK?
As a rule, no more than 15% of your net (take home) income should be committed to consumer debt payments each month. Another way to determine how much debt is appropriate for you to carry is to first complete a family budget. The amount remaining after you deduct your monthly savings and living expenses from your net income is the most you should have going to debt repayment. If you’re sending more than that to your creditors each month, you may want to consider credit coaching to help you reduce your debt load.

Shopping for Credit
When shopping for a credit card, you should first decide how you plan to use it so you can compare the features that are important for you. It is important to understand the difference between a charge card and a credit card. The balance on a charge card must be paid in full every month. Paying only a portion of the bill will cause your account to be delinquent. A credit card allows you to carry a balance for as long as you want, provided you make at least the minimum monthly payment due.

If you will pay your credit card bill off every month, a low annual fee is important. If you usually carry a balance, look for the lowest interest rate. Shop for a grace period, the amount of time after your purchase during which finance charges are not assessed. Some banks and finance companies give you up to 30 “free” days, but it has to be at least 21 days. However, interest starts accruing immediately on cash advances; there is no grace period and the interest rate is higher than that applied to regular purchases.

Depending on your payment and credit use habits, you may also be affected by late and, possibly, over-limit fees.

If you have no credit or a bad credit history, you may be able to obtain a secured credit card. A secured card works just like a regular credit card except that you must leave a deposit—usually between $250 and $500—with the issuing bank as collateral. If you default on your payments, the bank takes the money owed out of your deposit.

The interest rate and annual fee on a secured card are often a bit higher than on a regular card. But a secured card can offer you the convenience of a regular credit card and the opportunity to improve your credit record. When comparing cards, try to find one that does not charge an application or processing fee and confirm with the issuing bank that they will report your payment performance to at least one of the three major credit reporting bureaus, Experian, Trans Union, and Equifax. Make the most of this chance to build an unblemished credit report!

Used with Permission. Published by BALANCE Includes copyrighted material of IMakeNews, Inc. and its suppliers.

Cut These Costs TODAY

Man buying groceriesHave you ever unexpectedly found out you’re quickly going to have less income? It’s enough to throw you into a panic. But the best way to get through hard times is to take a few deep breaths and put a plan together. Check out these common targets for quick and effective expense cuts.

Food
You might find it obvious that evenings dining out at fancy restaurants probably aren’t the best idea when experiencing a budget crunch. But think about your groceries too. Consider avoiding the higher-priced stores and stocking up on the basics at the more reasonably priced spots. You might find that cooking at home and taking your lunch to work saves you lots of money and ends up being healthier too.

Cable/Movies/Rentals
If you’re like most people, your visual entertainment comes from multiple sources. You may watch movies on cable, in the theater, via rental or online. In crisis situations, it’s best to focus on watching movies at home and using one particular way to do it. In other words, if you have both Netflix and premium movie channels, it’s probably time to go with one or the other.

Phone plans
It’s nice to use a smart phone to be able to look up information on the go, but you could probably make do without the data plan if you had to. Did you know that you could also be on a prepaid smart phone plan? Call your service provider to ask them to perform an analysis on which plan is best for you. You might be paying for more than you actually need. Also consider eliminating your house phone if you have one.

Gym
It’s important to get some stress-relieving exercise during this trying time, but there’s no reason why you should have to spend money to do it. Brainstorm ways to be active without having to fork over a big chunk of your paycheck. The main thing is to just get moving!

Shopping as entertainment
One activity that could put you in the trouble zone is shopping for fun or to ease tension. “I won’t buy anything, I’ll just browse” too often can lead you down the path of unnecessary spending. Eliminate leisure shopping or other activities that put you in temptation.

Gas
Is it an option to work from home more? Can you carpool or combine your errands into fewer trips? If your family has multiple vehicles, can you sell one and share the remaining?

Insurance
With the ease of using the Internet to compare rates, the insurance business is much more competitive than it used to be. Shop around for the best deals on any type of insurance you have—auto, home, life, etc. Check into bundling these with one company to save even more. How is your credit score? This might affect the cost of certain insurances. Also be sure to ask about discounts you might apply for, and the option of raising your deductible in exchange for a lower monthly payment.

Utilities
Think of ways to stay warm or cool more efficiently. Put on more layers in the colder months and spend more time outside during the warmer times. Be conscious of turning everything off and even unplugging electrical items when you leave a room.

Habitual items
When you have a comfortable financial situation, it’s easy to buy coffee, cigarettes, alcohol and convenience store snacks without thinking too much about it. But in these tighter times, think about what you are really getting out of these purchases and if there are expenses that are more important.

Taxes
If you have more money taken out of each of your paychecks than is necessary in order to get a large income tax refund check in the spring, you are over-paying the government each month. Cut this expense by using the IRS withholding calculator to determine the appropriate amount to have withheld from each paycheck.

None of these cost-cutting measures alone is guaranteed to immediately solve all cash flow issues, but in concert they can potentially save you hundreds of dollars per month.

Used with Permission. Published by BALANCE Includes copyrighted material of BALANCE.

How Is Your Credit Score Determined?

The importance of understanding what influences your credit score
When it comes to buying a house, purchasing a new vehicle or applying for a credit card, your credit score is bound to come into play. As an influential factor in a financial institute’s decision whether to loan you money or not, your success often rests on this mysterious number. What is this important score and how is it determined? Learning this will help you take steps to raising your score over time.

Your credit score is calculated by a combination of five different factors, each contributing a different ratio of influence. According to Stacy Smith, Senior Publish Education Specialist for Experian, it involves your payment history, utilization, length of credit history, recent activity and overall capacity.

Payment history
Certainly the most persuasive factor in determining your current credit score, your payment history tells creditors about your likelihood of paying back any loans for which you’re currently applying. Amy Fontinelle, personal financial expert writing for Investopedia, explains that consistently paying your credit card, utility bills, student loan and other bills on time month after month will produce a higher credit score that reflects your financial reliability. On the other hand, a track record of late or below-minimum payments will bring your credit score down.

Utilization
Having a credit card and consistently using it will be reflected positively on your credit score over time, but using it too much could actually harm it. According to Dana Dratch, contributor at Bankrate.com, it’s important to keep your balance below 30 percent of your limit on every credit card—both individually and total. For example, if you have a $7,500 credit limit, you don’t want the balance to exceed $1,500.

So, if you’re maxing out your credit card every month for the bonus points—even if you’re paying the bill in full each month—that probably won’t look good to creditors who may see you as constantly spending in excess or charging everything to live paycheck to paycheck. If it reaches 30 percent, proactively pay the balance on the account before continuing to charge to it.

Length of credit history
This factor is not as influential as the first two and it covers multiple territories: how long has each account been open? Are all accounts still actively used or are some being neglected? Does the applicant have a variety of accounts—credit cards, auto loans, mortgages etc? This category is tricky because it is improved over time; suddenly opening a variety of accounts and using them religiously will only hurt your score, explains Smith.

Recent activity
While a healthy credit history is important, so is the current state. If you’ve taken on a loan or opened a new line of credit in the last 6 – 12 months and are applying to do so again, you are more likely to struggle with payments than you would be to excel. This is why you should not open multiple credit accounts around the same time, advises Smith.

Overall capacity
To a minor degree, your credit card reflects how much outstanding debt you have and how that impacts your overall financial situation. If you have a low amount of outstanding debt and a healthy, steady income, you don’t have to worry about this being an issue.

How to read your credit score
Your credit score actually consists of three scores calculated by major credit bureaus Equifax, Experian and Transunion. Each number generally ranges between 300 (low end) and 850 (high end). The higher the three-digit number, the healthier your credit is.

If your credit score is lower than you need it to be, worry not. The number is recalculated often, and healthy financial habits will steadily raise it over time.

Used with Permission. Published by IMN Bank Adviser Includes copyrighted material of IMakeNews, Inc. and its suppliers.

Useful Apps for Managing Your Expenses

Using your smartphone to be smarter about budgeting
Creating and sticking to a budget is essential if you want to get out of debt and achieve financial security, but it’s easier said than done. The proper amount of money to spend on various expenses can be difficult to calculate, and summoning the willpower required to stay true to those set amounts can prove even harder. Fortunately, there are many apps designed to keep you honest—and in the black. Here are some of the best apps available for managing your finances.

Mint
The most popular app for managing your money is Mint, a free app from Intuit, the company behind TurboTax and QuickBooks. Mint allows users to connect all of their bank and credit card accounts, as well as their monthly bill statements, into one convenient, all-in-one application for managing spending. Bill payment reminders, specific advice based on your unique spending habits and free credit scores are among the other services that Mint has to offer.

YNAB
You Need a Budget, or YNAB for short, doesn’t just document your spending—it seeks to actively improve your purchasing habits and behaviors. For $5 a month or $50 per year, this app is best for those struggling to escape from the burden of debt. In addition to designing a budget that will help you achieve solvency, YNAB also provides helpful advice and community support in the form of an online forum made up of others suffering from the constraints of living paycheck to paycheck.

Level Money
Many consumers get into the bad habit of checking their bank account, seeing a healthy balance and then spending with carefree abandon. But there’s a difference between how much you can spend and how much you should spend, and Level Money is designed to illustrate that divide. This free app factors in essential monthly costs like rent, utilities and grocery bills to show the “spendable” amount of money in your bank account. You can also program it to take into account your saving goals, which helps you better prepare for the future.

Digit
When managing your expenses, it can be hard to remember to save money; fortunately, Digit does it for you. This free app makes an analysis of your spending and income and then automatically takes small amounts from your checking account, often anywhere from $5 to $50, and banks them in an account managed by the company. The app is fee-free and comes with a no-overdraft guarantee, so there is little risk involved. No interest is earned on your savings, since Digit is not a bank, but there is a “Savings Bonus” of five cents for every $100 saved over a three-month period.

Whether you are racked by debt and searching for a way out or simply looking for a convenient way to keep track of expenses and improve your saving habits, there are many free and affordable apps that can have a positive impact on your finances.

Used with Permission. Published by IMN Bank Adviser Includes copyrighted material of IMakeNews, Inc. and its suppliers.

Four Mistakes People Make With Student Loans

Stay smart with a student loan strategy
Going to college is a life-changing experience that can open doors to new careers and increase your lifetime earning potential. If you are looking for a new student loan or are trying to make the best out of the repayment period, make sure you are avoiding these common student loan mistakes.

Not considering private loans
Many would-be-students shy away from private loans because they have heard that they lack the protections and benefits that come with federal loans. While it’s true that federal loans offer a fixed interest rate in contrast to most private loans, it is often possible for a student to get a lower interest rate with a private loan, particularly if a parent cosigns. If you are able to obtain a much lower rate with a private loan, then it’s worth seriously considering whether the security of a fixed rate with a federal loan is worth it.

Ignoring retirement savings
It is understandable, and even laudable, to want to repay student loans as quickly as possible, but undertaking an ambitious repayment plan at the expense of completely ignoring retirement savings isn’t wise.

“A recent report from Morningstar Inc. subsidiary HelloWallet found that someone with a starting salary of $50,000 who pays off a $20,000 student loan ahead of schedule but skimps on retirement savings—by contributing only enough to an employer-sponsored 401(k) plan to receive half the employer’s 3% matching contribution—will wind up with a net worth at age 65 that’s $150,000 below where it would have been had he or she contributed enough to receive the full match and repaid the loan over a longer period, by making the minimum required payment,” states The Wall Street Journal Reporter Anne Tergesen in an article from Sep. 2016.

Not making automatic payments
One of the best steps you can take to make sure the student loan repayment process goes as smoothly as possible is to set up automatic payments. Some people delay setting up automatic payments because they have ambitious goals of paying more than the minimum each month, and want to wait to see what their bank account balance is before determining the payment amount. While it’s great to pay more when you can (as long as you aren’t sacrificing retirement savings), it’s not worth the risk of making a late payment or missing a payment all together. Setting up automatic payments that you can afford each month is the safest bet, and if you find you have extra money after the payment is made, you can always make a supplemental payment.

Paying for assistance
If you are having trouble affording your payments, you may have been tempted by ads that offer to help you figure out your options for paying on a different schedule or seeking loan forgiveness on your federal loan.

“If someone asks you to pay for these services, you are not dealing with the U.S. Department of Education or our loan servicers,” according to Nicole Callahan, a Digital Engagement Strategist at Federal Student Aid in an article for HomeRoom, the official blog of the U.S. Department of Education. “We don’t charge application or maintenance fees. If you’re asked to pay, walk away (or hang up).”

The cost of an education that can help you start a profitable career or get a better job in your current field is money well spent, and you can make sure you are getting the best return on your investment by avoiding these four common student loan mistakes.

Used with Permission. Published by IMN Bank Adviser Includes copyrighted material of IMakeNews, Inc. and its suppliers.

Mobile Wallets: Moving Shopping Into the Future

A more secure and convenient way to make payments
These days, most transactions don’t involve physical money, so why should they involve physical wallets? Thanks to new technologies like Samsung Pay, Android Pay (formerly Google Wallet) and Apple Pay, you can now use your smartphone to securely make transactions without ever having to take out your credit card.

According to the latest survey data from market research firm CMB, only about 15 percent of smartphone users actually utilize these technologies to pay for purchases, but usage nearly doubled from 2013 to 2015 and will likely continue to rise over the next few years as the benefits of mobile wallets are better understood.

If you are not sold on the idea of joining the new trend, here’s why you may want to reconsider:

Ease of use
A mobile wallet is an app that can be installed on a smartphone, or may even come pre-installed. Investopedia explains how they work: “Once the app is installed and the user inputs his payment information, the wallet stores this information by linking a personal identification format like a number or key, QR code or an image of the owner to each card that is stored.”

You may also have to contact your financial institution to allow the mobile wallet app to use the payment card. Once everything is set up, the mobile app uses a radio-based technology called Near-Field Communication (NFC) that communicates with the merchant’s point-of-service terminal. In other words, you only need to wave or hold your device over a store’s reader to make a payment.

Security
Because mobile wallets use encrypted payment codes and never actually transmit your account number, they are much safer to use than credit cards. In addition, paying with a mobile wallet requires your fingerprint or personal identification number, so even if a thief managed to get their hands on your smartphone, they would have a much harder time spending your money than if they had stolen your credit card.

“Even if a thief bypassed all the security, the risk to you is low,” Jeff Blyskal writes in an October 2016 article for Consumer Reports. “Mobile wallets usually require an underlying credit or debit card to fund transactions, and those cards limit your liability for erroneous or fraudulent charges to little or nothing.”

Convenience and incentives
Mobile wallets can be used for more than just emulating credit and debit cards. “In addition to payment cards, the mobile wallet can also be used as a storage device for driver’s license, Social Security Number, health information cards, loyalty cards, hotel key cards and bus or train tickets,” Investopedia explains.

Thanks to mobile wallets, you can carry hundreds of rewards cards virtually, making it easier to keep track of the ones you own and to remember to use them. You can even use mobile wallets to make online payments, removing the need to tediously enter dozens of digits for each transaction.

You can also save money with various reward programs. For example, Android Pay offers rewards for using the app at selected partners, while Samsung Pay offers a tiered rewards system based on how many monthly purchases you make with it.

Widespread adoption
So far, the main obstacles faced by mobile wallets are the different payment methods. While almost all modern smartphones will support Samsung Pay, Android Pay, Apple Pay or a combination of these, all three of these apps may not necessarily work at all retailers.

“Samsung Pay can be used at more than 10 million U.S. stores, Apple Pay at more than 3 million stores, and Android Pay at more than 1 million stores,” Blyskal says. “The numbers will grow as retailers upgrade their payment card readers.”

Being able to use Samsung Pay at more than 10 million stores easily makes it the most attractive of all the mobile wallets, but you have to own a Samsung smartphone to use it. The upside is that it works everywhere: according to Ethan Wolff-Mann in an October 2015 article for the Time’s Money, “[Samsung Pay] works everywhere, since it can mimic a magnetic strip if NFC technology is unavailable; retailers don’t get your credit card info.”

This doesn’t mean that Samsung will continue to be the best option for smartphone owners interested in mobile wallets, as both Google and Apple are strongly invested in using this technology to sell smartphones and will continue to implement rewards for using them. Furthermore, using a mobile wallet speeds up transaction times, which gives retailers extra incentive to adopt NFC-capable card readers.

For the time being, mobile wallet adoption across retailers may still not be good enough to leave your credit card at home. In the future, however, it’s very likely you’ll never need to go out shopping with more than just your smartphone.

Used with Permission. Published by IMN Bank Adviser Includes copyrighted material of IMakeNews, Inc. and its suppliers.

Why You Should Avoid Personal Lending

A loan from a financial institution is best
Avoiding paperwork and getting low or no interest makes a loan from a friend or family member seem like a great idea, but the complications that arise in personal lending situations make them seldom worth the trouble.

Firstly, if the money is lent interest-free, that can create problems with below-market interest legislation. This is a big deal because avoiding interest is one of the main reasons people seek loans between family members. This is an issue because the IRS wants to ensure that people don’t try to get out of paying taxes on financial gifts by disguising them as loans. In order to remain in compliance with the IRS and make it clear that the transfer of money is a loan and not a gift, it may be necessary to calculate the interest that would hypothetically be paid on the sum at the current applicable federal rate (AFR), even if that interest is never actually paid. This is known as imputed interest.

“Then you get to pay real, live income taxes on the imaginary interest,” states Bill Bischoff of MarketWatch. “The imaginary interest payments can also trigger imaginary gifts from you to the borrower, which may eat into your valuable federal gift and estate tax exemption.”

There are differences in the ways that loans between family members are treated depending on whether the repayment is achieved through a set term schedule or it is considered a demand loan, which means that the lender may demand the money back at any time. The need to calculate imputed interest and make income tax payments on the interest is dependent upon the amount of the loan. Those interested in making a loan between family members should therefore talk to their tax professional to determine if below-interest tax rules may be an issue and if interest needs to be charged or imputed interest calculated.

While these legal and financial issues can definitely create their share of problems, the main reason to avoid lending between family members is the personal and emotional impact it can cause. Money owed between family members can cause tension in the relationships and even tempt people to avoid social interactions and family gatherings. If the borrower is not able to repay on a timely schedule, the relationship can be seriously compromised.

Furthermore, if the loan is for a new business or home, it may be especially problematic to get the money from a family member. When a family member lends money to cover a down payment or business startup costs, he or she may feel entitled to become part of the decision-making process, giving you input on how to run the business or which type of home is the best deal. People may do this because they feel their advice can make it more likely you will succeed in repayment, or because they feel their investment has bought them a stake in the home or business venture.

“One of the disadvantages of owing money to loved ones is that it may open up unwanted dialogue about your spending habits,” states April Maguire, writer for the QuickBooks Resource Center. “Whereas a bank won’t tell you to stop going out to dinner or discourage you from buying a new car, lenders who are also friends or family may criticize you for spending money on extravagances when you have yet to repay your debt.”

It can be hard to set up and maintain a clear separation between the financial agreement and the relationship when dealing with a personal lending situation. On the other hand, once a financial institution deems you worthy of a loan, it gives you autonomy to make your own business, home-buying and budgeting decisions.

Sticking with your financial institution helps you avoid all the hassles associated with personal lending and ensures that your relationships are never put at risk. Furthermore, it allows you to build a solid credit history with your timely repayments.

Used with Permission. Published by IMN Bank Adviser Includes copyrighted material of IMakeNews, Inc. and its suppliers.