Adulting 101: Big Girl Money

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Adulting is hard. It’s even harder for the millennials who came of age during or after the Great Recession. It certainly doesn’t help that financial literacy has always lacked in our society. So I decided to put together a list of 10 things you can do to manage your personal finances like a grown up.

1. Have a budget to help you keep tabs on money.

2. Set specific and realistic financial goals to make sure that you not only have something to look forward to but that you also stick with it.

3. Find a money role model who will give you something to strive for. S/he will make you realize that it is possible to get yourself out of debt, they can keep you accountable and they are a much better influence than your friend who says: “YOLO!”

4. Practice the art of ‘No’. Establishing boundaries protects your wallet as much as your sanity. Girls trip to Bali? Matching designer duds for the bachelorette week end? Expensive steak dinner after work? If you can’t afford it, say no & stay firm.

5. Don’t overspend. It sounds simple but if it were that easy, studies results wouldn’t show that 1/2 of all Americans are struggling financially. There’s no greater sign of maturity than exercising self control & being able to delay gratification.

6. Save, save, save. Emergency funds, retirement, short & long term goals. Save for all of them. Saving will prevent you from spiraling out of control under a mountain of debt.

7. Monitor your credit. There should never be surprises when it comes to your finances. Maybe except for pleasant ones like being ahead of your savings schedule or inheritance from a rich long lost cousin. You don’t want to find out long after you’ve started the process that your mortgage has been denied or after your clunker breaks down that you don’t qualify for a car loan. You should show up for credit applications equipped with enough information to negotiate from a position of power.

8. Be properly insured. When I landed in the hospital in late 2009, I couldn’t have imagined my life would change the way it did. In fact, I did 2-hour street parking outside of the hospital. I ended up leaving 4 weeks later & a month after that, I got $50,000 bill. All but $150 was covered by insurance. As a seemingly healthy 23 year old, I could have passed on coverage to save myself the $250 a month I was paying. Instead, I decided I needed to be properly covered like the adult that  I was & that decision saved me from financial disaster.

9. Start learning investment basics. You cannot save your way to wealth. You can only earn your way to wealth either through wages, investments or some combination of both. You don’t have to become an expert stock picker, but you should learn the difference between some key concepts like 401k v. IRA, stocks, bonds & mutual funds, associated fees & tax implications of different investment types, etc.

10. Track your net worth. Your net worth is a measure of your financial progress. It is also a motivating & financial management tool & that is why I began actively tracking my net worth late last year.

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Path to a Million: 2017 Q2

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I have a lot to be excited about! Slowly but surely, my net worth is going up…up…UP! I’ve done nothing but CRUSH debt so far this year and an trickle of additional sources of income has helped increase our savings while I fought tooth and nail to keep our household expenses down. I’ll let the numbers speak for themselves… Discipline pays off. Watching the assets increase and watching the total debt decrease at an even faster rate is what keeps me motivated.

The goal is for the student line item to be gone by December 31, 2017. Think I can do it?

NW

 

Student Loan Update – April 2017

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When I graduated in May of 2017, I chose not to think about my student loans. It was a hot humid day but people traveled from different states to come see me complete another milestone. I was juggling full time work and a part time MBA program right when my husband was settling into a new job. I had a lot to be thankful for and a number of people were proud of me. The Department of Education was going to grant me 10 years starting in December 2015 to agonize over student loans but I was never going to get another graduation day.

I picked up my diploma after the ceremony and I sat in the front seat of my husband’s car running my fingers on it back and forth as my parents sat in the back. I was pretty impressed with myself. Not in a gloating kind of way but more so in a “I actually did it…” Almost as if I couldn’t believe it.

The next day, things went back to normal and I decided that the honeymoon period with the diploma was over. Real world responsibilities required me to know what my balance was and what my monthly payments were projected to be. It was nothing that I could not afford but it was painful. Over $350 a month a and $40k+ balance. I could get a whole new car with that! I devised an aggressive pay down plan as follows:

  1. Start paying immediately rather than waiting for the grace period
  2. Apply all raises to the monthly payment and all bonuses to the balance
  3. Apply all tax refunds if any to the balance

3 simple steps. The toughest part was the discipline of not eating out as much as we would have liked and not splurging at the mall. However, 23 months later, that plan has worked so well that I am dancing for joy.

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In case you are having trouble reading the small font, this says:

Current balance $11,641.17 & Due date 7/18/2020

While there are no guarantees, these numbers indicate that I am likely on track to finish paying the debt off by the end of the year if all goes as planned. That will be 8 years ahead of schedule. This is more than I could ever hope to achieve. When I said I was determined to pay and save myself an astronomical amount of money in interest, I was not joking.

I am grateful for the discipline I have that allows me to focus on long term independence goals rather than instant gratification. I’m also thankful that I have a supportive husband who understands my goals and can see my vision for our family. Some people would have valued the high life over a debt free life and it could have been a source of friction. Instead, he trusts my judgement and is happy delaying a little bit of gratification in favor of peace of mind.

Dear DOE, thank you but no thank you. I will decline your offer to take a 3-year hiatus from my obligation. You’re going to collect these payments and you’re going to like it. But better yet, you will set me free.

 

Savers Rejoice!

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Your time has come. After nearly a decade, long suffering frugal people are on track to be rolling in the though again. Not exactly, but pretty much. Sorta… Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that the Federal Reserve raised interest rate by another 0.25%. Just to be clear, the FRB does not set interest rates. However, their rates drive consumer rates because Fed rates are often used as a benchmark for overall market interest rates. Although rates on deposit accounts are not going to go up as quickly as borrowing rates, us savers are one step closer to escaping the 0% interest rate of money market accounts.

In case you were thinking that 0.25% is small, I’m going to put this in perspective for you. The first rate hike since 2007 was in 2015. The next one was in 2016 and this hike is following 3 months later. This could potentially be setting the ground work for 2 more rate increases this year. The interval between hikes is shortening.

For those of you who are still borrowing, especially those who still have ARM on their balance sheet, be careful to not get caught with your pants down…

Debt vs. Savings: What to Prioritize

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Two of the building blocks of personal finance are saving money and paying off debt. Everything flows from these two principles. You can’t invest, start a business or retire if you are not saving and/or you are crippled by a mountain of debt. In an ideal world, we’d be maxing out our 401k and crushing our debt, getting ever closer to eliminating them every month. Alas, we live in the real world with tons of responsibility and a finite amount of money to work with. So how do we prioritize?

While the exact answer might vary from person to person depending on their respective situation, the steps we use to reach the appropriate conclusion are the same. To make it easier, I will eliminate the variables in a hypothetical situation by using myself as an example.

Currently, I have 3 savings account: one is a CD where I get the best return I’m going to get in this interest environment. It pays me 1.25%. The other one is a money market account that pays 0.05%. It’s not as lucrative as the CD but my money is accessible with few penalties. However, money markets have an important restriction. While you can deposit money any time you want, they cap how many times per month you can withdraw before you incur a fee. It’s a fantastic tool that forces you to keep your hand out of the honeypot. But life happens and we sometimes need to access money more often than we want to. That’s where my regular savings account comes in. Hold on to your hat folks, this return might blow you away: 0.01%. I’ll try not to spend it all in one place. If you’re wondering what this has to do with anything, be patient…

The debt that is currently the biggest thorn in my side is my student loan debt. As much as I would love to keep fattening up my savings, the interest rate on that debt is 5.16%. That means, for every hundred dollar I chose to add to my savings (let’s assume we’re talking about the CD since it offers the best rate) over paying off my student loans, I am getting a return of 1.25% that is costing me 5.16%. That puts me in a whole of close to 4% annually on that $100. Of course, student loan interest is tax deductible if you itemize (which I do), but you don’t get all of it back. The IRS caps it at $2,500 gradually decreasing it as your income goes up until it disappears. So we’re talking a saving of 1% to maybe 2%, and I’m being generous, which will then net you a negative return of almost 2% and we aren’t adjusting for inflation.

So what do I prioritize?

  1. Having an emergency fund: This buys you peace of mind and keeps you from falling into debt when tragedy strikes. How much you need depends on your particular situation. But I recommend a minimum of 6 months.
  2. Saving for retirement: The most important part of saving and investing for retirement is time. The longer you save, the more time that compound interest has to work in your favor. Also, the more time you have to recover from dips in the market.
  3. Paying off high interest debt: My student loan debt at over 5% is in stark contrast with this loan I took out for an energy efficient central AC which is a 0% loan. I am in no rush to pay that off. If they want to extend it 10 more years, I’ll take it! However, I am very aggressive with my student loan debt where I send every extra unexpected funds to Nelnet. Whether it’s a raise, a bonus or a tax return check, it goes towards my student loans. I have paid off over $23,000 in the past 18 months and I have no plans of slowing down until it’s gone.

While your situation might be different, for me, this is the least expensive and most sensible order in which I can allocate my funds. If I do anything else, I am not maximizing all of my dollars. Have you taken the time to consider if your debt repayment plan and your savings strategy are optimized?

The 7-Step Guide to Healing Your Credit

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Before you read this post, I encourage you to take a look at the previous blog that talks about what makes up a credit score. You will have a better understanding of how the steps that I am recommending will impact your score every step of the way.

Welcome back! Now that you know what makes up a credit score, I hope you’re ready to fix yours.

A capitalist society is a consumer driven society. Few people are as consumption driven as Americans. Unfortunately, many of us aren’t patient enough to wait until we can afford the luxuries of life before we decide to indulge. As a result, we overextend ourselves, borrowing our lives away to keep up with the Jones’. However, as various entities we do business with begin to put increasing value on credit history, we are starting to wake up to the fact that things need to change.

But before they change, we must right the wrongs of the past. So it is no surprise that credit repair has become big business. The other fact about the credit repair industry is that they are preying on low-income consumers. What if I told you that with a little bit of guidance, patience and a whole lot of discipline you could repair your own credit score for free? Well you can and I will outline all the steps below.

The following list is a guide for how you can repair your credit or keep your credit score high if you already have good credit.

  1. Pay on time – Pay all of your bills on time, every time. Verizon, T-Mobile, Comcast can all send you to collection and ruin your credit. While you want to prioritize things like your mortgage so you aren’t homeless, don’t think there is a company out there that you owe money to that doesn’t have the ability to report you to all 3 credit bureaus.
  2. Pay down your balances aggressively – Your outstanding debt balance, especially on revolving lines of credit (i.e. credit cards) negatively impact your debt usage ratio (how much of your available credit line that you are using). Therefore, your score will benefit  greatly from you paying off your balance due and not just the minimum payment.
  3. Do not apply for credit – If you read the previous article that I linked above, you will know that hard inquiries (shopping for credit vs. “soft” inquiries marketing/promotional inquiries) on your report adversely affect your score. Additionally, those inquiries remain on your report for about 2 years.
  4. Pay, don’t shift– Do not move your debt around. I know someone who spent nearly 3 years moving their credit card balances to 0% interest promotional cards until she was no longer getting those offers. This does not eliminate your debt. It just helps you avoid interest for a period of time while you’re paying a balance transfer fee as a percentage of your owed amount. It is costing you money to still carry the debt. Ignore those promotional offers as they only benefit the company that you’re moving to, while you continue to be in debt and your score continues to suffer.
  5. Don’t close good accounts – If you have accounts in good standing with little or no balances, especially if they are aged, keep them open. They help establish your history and offset negative information on your credit. However, you have to be able to resist the urge of using the card or credit line. You are NOT required to use your account to have good credit.
  6. Be patient – Time heals all wounds. Inquiry “wounds” 2 years. Delinquency “wounds” 7 years. Bankruptcy “wounds” 10 years. As you work your tail off to show improve the data that shows up on your credit report going forward, there is not much you can do about ACCURATE adverse information. However, all information, good or bad goes away eventually. This is why it is important to remain consistent once you decide to make a change. Once the bad information falls off, you want to make sure that new bad information doesn’t rear its ugly head as it has a 7 year shelf-life.
  7. Fight – Remember how I said you can’t do anything about accurate information? That is not the case for incorrect information. If someone has the same name as you, or their social security number is 1 digit off from yours, or if you were the victim of identity theft, you don’t have to be punished for an error or a thief. The law says that you have the right to fix errors on your credit report and you should absolutely exercise that right.

These are all steps you can take on your own, for free. I hope you find the information useful and that the credit repair business has just lost another customer.

Applying for a Mortgage: The 5 Cs

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I talk a lot about real estate, but we all know real estate is expensive. There are few, if any, of us with the capabilities of buying real property with cash. Even some of the people who are in a position to do it, choose to leverage their net worth and maximize their purchasing power using borrowings. In a consumer-driven society, lending is king and that is why something as minor as a 25 basis point shift in interest rates is a news headline and a stock market mover. We hear about rates, banks and borrowers. Everyone talks about how you have to have a good credit score and some type of down payment. However the discussion usually does not expand beyond these points.

I have put a little guide together that might give you a better understanding of why they request the documents they do. But most importantly, it helps you prepare your finances so you present yourself as the type of borrower they wish to lend to.

Credit: The first thing the lender will do is look at your credit history to determine if you are “credit worthy”. In the simplest of terms, they will look at your credit score and history. These 2 things will tell them whether or not you pay your bills on time, every time. This will help them decide if they even want to move forward without or if the risk is too great that you will turn out to be a problem borrower and will default, leaving them holding the bag.

Capacity: This evaluates your ability to take on any additional debt and pay on time. This is what they mean by “debt-to-income ratio”. You may be very good at paying all your bills, but if you are breaking even every month, you are likely not able to continue meeting all your financial obligations should you take on more debt.

Collateral: Also known as “protection”, collateral is something that you own but a lender puts a claim on it, as a way of protecting their investment. The law allows them to take possession of that asset to offset any loss from you not paying your debt. In real estate, the asset used as collateral is the very property you’re buying. In rare cases where the loan is more than what the purchased property is worth, you can use another property as a second piece of collateral.

Capital: That is usually liquid assets that you may have. Primarily they want to see that you have the ability to give a down payment or at the very least pay your closing costs. If the purpose is to get an investment property, they want to see a few months worth of reserves should you have vacancies. It’s also a way to evaluate whether or not you have other sources to tap and make payments if you were to ever lose your job.

Condition: This is the purpose of the loan. Some loans are higher risk than others depending on their purpose. Not all real estate loans are created equal. A loan for a residential building will have a better interest rate than a loan for a strip mall because of the risk involved. A used car loan will also be more expensive than a new car loan. Whether it’s an equity line or a purchase or refinance will also matter.

I hope this will give you a better understanding and some of the information you need to prepare for a successful mortgage application.