Americans now owe a record $1.04 trillion in credit card debt.¹ If you’re not careful, credit card debt could hurt your credit score, wipe out your savings, and completely alter your personal financial landscape.
So: debt, debit, both, or neither? Before you apply for that next piece of plastic, here’s what you need to watch out for.
Low interest rates
Credit card companies spend a lot of money on marketing to try to get you hooked on an offer. Often you hear or read that a company will tout an offer with a low or zero percent APR (Annual Percentage Rate). This is called a “teaser rate.”
Sounds amazing, right? But here’s the problem: This is a feature that may only last for 6–12 months. Ask yourself if the real interest rate will be worth it. Credit card companies make a profit via credit card interest. If they were to offer zero percent interest indefinitely, then they wouldn’t make any money.
Make sure you read the fine print to determine whether the card’s interest rate will be affordable after the teaser rate period expires.
Fixed vs. variable interest rates
Credit cards will operate on either a fixed interest rate or a variable interest rate.² A fixed interest rate will generally stay the same from month to month. A variable interest rate, by contrast, is tied to an index (fancy word for interest rate) that moves with the economy. Normally the interest rate is set to be a few percentage points higher than the index.
The big difference here is that while a fixed rate may change, the credit card company is required to inform its customers when this happens. While a variable APR may start out with a lower interest rate, it’s not uncommon for these rates to fluctuate. What’s more, the credit card company isn’t required to tell you about a variable rate change at all!³
Low interest rates are usually reserved for individuals who have great credit with a long credit history. So, if you’ve never owned a credit card (or you are recovering from a negative credit history) this could be a red flag.
Of course, you could avoid these pitfalls altogether if you pay off your credit card balance before the statement date. Whatever the interest rate, be sure you’re applying for a credit card that’s affordable for you to pay off if you miss the payoff due date.
High credit limits
While large lines of credit are usually reserved for those with a good credit history, a new cardholder might still receive an offer for up to a $10,000 credit limit.
If this happens to you, beware. While it may seem like the offer conveys a great deal of trust in your ability to pay your bill, be honest with yourself. You may not be able to recover from the staggering size of your credit card debt if you can’t pay off your balance each month.
If you already have a card with a limit that feels too high, it may be in your interest to request that the company lower your card’s limit.
So you’re late paying your credit card bill. Late payments not only have the potential to hurt your credit score, but some credit cards may also assess a penalty APR if you haven’t paid your bill on time.
Penalty APRs are incredibly high, usually topping out at 29.99%.⁴ The solution here is simple: pay your bill on time or you might find self paying ridiculous interest rates!
Balance transfer fees
It’s not uncommon for a cardholder to transfer one card’s balance to another card, otherwise known as a balance transfer. This can be an effective way to pay off your debt while sidestepping interest, but only if you do so before the card’s effective rate kicks in. And, even if a card offers zero interest on balance transfers, you still may have to pay a fee for doing so.
Whatever type of credit card you choose, the only person responsible for its pros and cons is you. But if you’re thrifty and pay attention to the bottom line, you can help make that credit card work for your credit score and not against it.
¹ Samuel Stebbins “Where credit card debt is the worst in the US: States with the highest average balances,” USA Today (March 7 2019, updated April 26, 2019)
² Latoya Irby, “Credit Card Interest Rates: Fixed vs. Variable Rates,” The Balance (May 20, 2019)
³ Latoya Irby, “Credit Card Interest Rates: Fixed vs. Variable Rates,” The Balance (May 20, 2019)
⁴ Latoya Irby, “Credit Card Default And Penalty Rates Explained,” (August 12, 2019)
Unexpected expenses, market fluctuations, or a sudden job loss could leave you financially vulnerable. Here are some tips to help you get ready for your bank account’s rainy days!
Know the difference between a rainy day fund and an emergency fund … but have both!
People often use the terms interchangeably, but there are some big differences between a rainy day fund and an emergency fund. A rainy day fund is typically designed to cover a relatively small unexpected cost, like a car repair or minor medical bills. Emergency funds are supposed to help cover expenses that might accumulate during a long period of unemployment or if you experience serious health complications. Both funds are important for preparing for your financial future—it’s never too early to start building them.
Tackle your debt now
Just because you can manage your debt now doesn’t mean you’ll be able to in the future. Prioritizing debt reduction, especially if you have student loans or credit card debit, can go a long way toward helping you prepare for an unexpected financial emergency. It never hurts to come up with a budget that includes paying down debt and to set a date for when you want to be debt-free!
Learn skills to bolster your employability
One of the worst things that can blindside you is unemployment. That’s why taking steps now to help with a potential future job search can be so important. Look into free online educational resources and classes, and investigate certifications. Those can go a long way towards diversifying your skillset (and can look great on a resume).
None of these tips will do you much good unless you get the ball rolling on them now. The best time to prepare for an emergency is before the shock and stress set in!
On average, each household that has revolving credit card debt owes $7,104 (1). It might be tempting to see those numbers and decide to throw out your credit cards entirely. After all, why hang on to a source of temptation when you could make do with cash or a debit card? However, keeping a credit card around has some serious benefits that you should consider before you decide to free yourself from plastic’s grasp.
You might have bigger debts to deal with
On average, credit card debt is low compared to auto loans ($27,934), student loans ($46,679), and mortgages ($192,618) (2). Simply put, you might be dealing with debts that cost you a lot more than your credit card. That leaves you with a few options. You can either start with paying down your biggest debts (a debt avalanche) or get the smaller ones out of the way and move up (a debt snowball). That means you’ll either tackle credit card debt first or wait while you deal with a mortgage payment or student loans. Figure out where to start and see where your credit card fits in!
Ditching credit cards can lower your credit score
Credit utilization and availability play a big role in determining your credit score (3). The less credit you use and the more you have available, the better your score will likely be. Closing down a credit card account may drastically lower the amount of credit you have available, which then could reduce your score. Even freezing your card in a block of ice can have negative effects; credit card companies will sometimes lower your available credit or just close the account if they see inactivity for too long (4). This may not be the end of the world if you have another line of credit (like a mortgage) but it’s typically better for your credit score to keep a credit card around and only use it for smaller purchases.
It’s often wiser to limit credit card usage than to ditch them entirely. Figure out which debts are costing you the most, and focus your efforts on paying them down before you cut up your cards. While you’re at it, try limiting your credit card usage to a few small monthly purchases to protect your credit score and free up some extra funds to work on your other debts.
Need help coming up with a strategy? Give me a call and we can get started on your journey toward financial freedom!
(1) Erin El Issa, “Nerdwallet’s 2019 American Household Credit Card Debt Study,” Nerdwallet, December 2, 2019
(2) Erin El Issa, “Nerdwallet’s 2019 American Household Credit Card Debt Study,” Nerdwallet, December 2, 2019
(3) Latoya Irby, “Understanding Credit Utilization: How Your Usage Affects Your Credit Score,” The Balance, February 20, 2020
(4) Lance Cothern, “Will My Credit Score Go Down If A Credit Card Company Closes My Account For Non-Use?” March 2, 2020
Paying off your mortgage, car, and student loans can sometimes seem so impossible that you might not even look at the total you owe. You just keep making payments because that’s all you might think you can do. However, there is a way out! Here are 4 tips to help:
Make a Budget
Many people have a complex budget that tracks every penny that comes in and goes out. They may even make charts or graphs that show the ratio of coffee made at home to coffee purchased at a coffee shop. But it doesn’t have to be that complicated, especially if you’re new at this “budget thing”. Start by splitting all of your spending into two categories: necessary and optional. Rent, the electric bill, and food are all examples of necessary spending, while something like a vacation or buying a third pair of black boots (even if they’re on sale) might be optional. Figure out ways that you can cut back on your optional spending, and devote the leftover money to paying down your debt. It might mean staying in on the weekends or not buying that flashy new electronic gadget you’ve been eyeing. But reducing how much you owe will be better long-term.
Negotiate a Settlement
Creditors often negotiate with customers. After all, it stands to reason that they’d rather get a partial payment than nothing at all! But be warned; settling an account can potentially damage your credit score. Negotiating with creditors is often a last resort, not an initial strategy.
Interest-bearing debt obligations may be negotiable. Contact a consolidation specialist for refinancing installment agreements. This debt management solution helps reduce the risk of multiple accounts becoming overdue. When fully paid, a clean credit record with an extra loan in excellent standing may be the reward if all payments are made on time.
Get a side gig
You might be in a position to work evenings or weekends to make extra cash to put towards your debt. There are a myriad of options—rideshare driving, food delivery, pet sitting, you name it! Or you might have a hobby that you could turn into a part-time business.
If you feel overwhelmed by debt, then let’s talk. We can discuss strategies that will help move you from feeling helpless to having financial control.
Having your emergency fund at the ready would be ideal to cover your conundrum, but what if your emergency fund has been depleted, or you can’t or don’t want to use a credit card or line of credit to get through a crisis?
There are other options out there – a cash advance or a payday loan.
But beware – these options pose some serious caveats. Both carry high interest rates and both are aimed at those who are in desperate need of money on short notice. So before you commit to one of these options, let’s pause and take a close look at why you might be tempted to use them, and how they compare to other credit products, like credit cards or traditional loans.
The Cash Advance
If you already have a credit card, you may have noticed the cash advance rate associated with that card. Many credit cards offer a cash advance option – you would go to an ATM and retrieve cash, and the amount would be added to your credit card’s balance. However, there is usually no grace period for cash advances.[i] Interest would begin to accrue immediately.
Furthermore, the interest rate on a cash advance may often be higher than the interest rate on credit purchases made with the same card. For example, if you buy a $25 dinner on credit, you may pay 15% interest on that purchase (if you don’t pay it off before the grace period has expired). On the other hand, if you take a cash advance of $25 with the same card, you may pay 25% interest, and that interest will start right away, not after a 21-day grace period. Check your own credit card terms so you’re aware of the actual interest you would be charged in each situation.
The Payday Loan
Many people who don’t have a credit history (or who have a poor credit rating) may find it difficult to obtain funds on credit, so they may turn to payday lenders. They usually only have to meet a few certain minimum requirements, like being of legal age, showing proof of employment, etc.[ii] Unfortunately, the annualized interest rates on payday loans are notoriously high, commonly reaching hundreds of percentage points.[iii]
A single loan at 10% over two weeks may seem minimal. For example, you might take a $300 loan and have to pay back $330 at your next paycheck. Cheap, right? Definitely not! If you annualize that rate, which is helpful to compare rates on different products, you get 250% interest. The same $300 charged to a 20% APR credit card would cost you $2.30 in interest over that same two week period (and that assumes you have no grace period).
Why People Use Payday Loans
Using a cash advance in place of purchasing on credit can be hard to justify in a world where almost every merchant accepts credit cards. However, if a particular merchant only accepts cash, you may be forced to take out a cash advance. Of course, if you can pay off the advance within a day or two and there is a fee for using a credit card (but not cash), you might actually save a little bit by paying in cash with funds from a cash advance.
Taking a payday loan, while extremely expensive, has an obvious reason: the applicant cannot obtain loans in any other way and has an immediate need for funds. The unfortunate reality is that being “credit invisible” can be extremely expensive, and those who are invisible or at risk of becoming invisible should start cautiously building their credit profiles, either with traditional credit cards or a secured card[iv], if your circumstances call for it. (As always, be aware of fees and interest rates charged with the card you choose.) Even more important is to start building an emergency fund. Then, if an emergency does arise, payday loans can be avoided.
Your credit report may affect anything from how much you pay for a cell phone plan, to whether you would qualify for the mortgage you might want.
Getting and maintaining a good credit score can be advantageous. But how do you achieve a good credit report? What if you’re starting from scratch? The dilemma is like the chicken and the egg question. How can you build a positive credit report if no one will extend you credit?
Read on for some useful tips to help you get started.
Use a cosigner to take out a loan
One way to help build good credit is by taking out a loan with a cosigner. A cosigner would be responsible for the repayment of the loan if the borrower defaults. Many banks may be willing to give loans to people with no credit if someone with good credit acts as a cosigner on the loan to help ensure the money will be paid back.
Build credit as an authorized user
If you don’t want or need to take out a loan with a cosigner, you may want to consider building credit as an authorized user of someone else’s credit card – like a parent, close friend, or relative you trust. The credit card holder would add you as an authorized user of the card. Over time if the credit account remains in good standing, you would begin building credit.
Apply for a store credit card to build your credit
Another way to start building your credit record is to secure a store credit card. Store credit cards may be easier to qualify for than major credit cards because they usually have lower credit limits and higher interest rates. A store credit card may help you build good credit if you make the payments on time every month. Also be sure to pay the card balance off each month to avoid paying interest.
Keep student loans in good standing
If there is an upside to student loan debt, it’s that having a student loan can help build credit and may be easy to qualify for. Just keep in mind, as with any loan, to make payments on time.
Good credit takes time
Building a good credit report takes time, but we all must start somewhere. Your credit score can affect many aspects of your financial health, so it’s worth it to build and maintain a good credit report. Start small and don’t bite off more than you can chew. Most importantly, as you begin building credit, protect it by avoiding credit card debt and making your payments on time.
But as you head out for a night on the town with friends or maybe cuddle up next to your kids to watch their favorite movie, did you ever consider how you spent your after-work time during the week?
Whether you’re routine-driven, a free spirit, or somewhere in between, setting aside a few minutes every day to spend on your finances has the potential to make a huge difference in the long run. By adding these 3 financial habits to your daily routine, you have the potential to give yourself a little more power over your finances.
1. Check your inbox (or mailbox). Whether you pay your bills via credit card, automatic withdrawal, or a hand-written check that you mail in to the company, a daily look-see will help you stay on top of any alerts you get. Spend a few minutes every day glancing over incoming bills, payment receipts, and new online transactions. Being aware of the exodus (or pending exodus) of your money can help fend off late fees, overdrawing your accounts, or maxing out your credit card.
2. Review your spending. Every evening, take quick stock of any spending you did that day – whether in brick-and-mortar stores or online. This exercise can be eye-opening. For instance, are you in the habit of grabbing a piping hot cup of coffee from the drive-thru on your morning commute? Depending on your coffee preference, that can cost up to $5 a day! Maybe 5 bucks isn’t a huge deal, but consider this:
Just staying aware of those little daily expenditures may make a huge difference in your financial health; when you know how much you’re paying over time for something you could prepare at home (for far less money), you may decide to scale back on the barista-brewed coffee so you can help boost your financial future – and keep yourself on the path to financial independence.
3. Learn a little more. Knowing how money works is a vital part of achieving and maintaining financial independence. Taking a few moments every day to educate yourself a little more about money can make a huge difference in the long run. It can keep you aware of best practices for money management and all the ways your money can work for you. Try a blog post, YouTube video, or a best-seller on finances to keep yourself informed and up to date.
As you start putting these simple financial habits in place, contact me any time! Together we can assess how these small changes could help strengthen your financial strategy and get you closer to financial independence.
But the cost of travel, food, and gifts can add up quickly, making it hard to focus on the things that matter most. Here are some tips to help protect your pocketbook this holiday season so you can focus on sharing old traditions and making new memories with friends and family.
Play secret Santa
Secret Santa is an easy way to divvy up gift buying duties, especially if you have a large family or friend group. Have everyone participating put their names in a hat. Everyone then draws a random name out of the hat and must buy a gift for the person they’ve selected. It’s a simple and fun way to limit how many people you need to buy gifts for and control how much you spend on presents. Optional Secret Santa: Only do the gift swap with the kids and skip the adults this year.
Buy gifts with cash when you can
Watch out for credit card debt this holiday season. Purchasing presents with credit can be tempting (especially during the Black Friday frenzy), but how much you’re going to owe can quickly add up. Set a budget for yourself and then take that much cash out of the bank. Once it dries up, stop buying gifts! Your future self will be glad come January when you don’t have a whopping credit card bill to pay off.
Take advantage of sales and coupons early
Start collecting wishlists a few months before the holidays begin. If Aunt Margaret mentions a new cookware set she has her eye on in August, take note! Shopping early is an easy way of increasing your chances of finding sales and deals before the hardcore holiday shopping ensues. For online shopping, investigate couponing apps and add-ons. They can automatically add discounts to purchases, potentially saving you big money over a few gifts!
The holidays are about remembering what really matters, not worrying about money. The goal of these tips isn’t just to save you some cash, but to help you celebrate the things and people you love, free of financial distractions. Happy Holidays!
Get up a few minutes early to brew your own coffee, or sleep a little later and then whip through a drive-thru for your morning pick-me-up?
When that caffeine hits your bloodstream, how you got the coffee may not matter too much. But the next time you go through a drive thru for that cup o’ joe, picture your financial strategy shouting and waving its metaphorical arms to get your attention.
Why? Each and every time you indulge in a “luxury” that has a less expensive alternative, you’re potentially delaying your financial independence. Delay it too long and you might find yourself working when you should be enjoying a comfortable retirement. Sound dramatic? Alarmist? Apocalyptic? But that’s how it happens – one $5 peppermint mocha at a time. This isn’t to say that you can’t enjoy an indulgence every once in a while. You gotta “treat yourself” sometimes, right? Just be sure that you’re sticking with your overall, long-term strategy. Your future self will thank you!
Here are 3 ways to shift from indulgence to independence:
1. Make coffee at home. Reducing your expenses can start as simply as making your morning coffee at home. And you might not even have to get up earlier to do it. Why not invest in a coffee pot with a delay brewing function? It’ll start brewing at the time you preset, and what’s a better alarm clock than the scent of freshly-brewed coffee wafting from the kitchen? Or from your bedside table… (This is a judgment-free zone here – do what you need to do to get up on time in the morning.)
Get started: A quick Google search will yield numerous lists of copycat specialty drinks that you can make at home.
2. Workout at home. A couple of questions to ask yourself:
1) Will an expensive gym membership fit into your monthly budget? 2) How often have you gone to the gym in the last few months?
If your answers are somewhere between “No” and “I’d rather not say,” then maybe it’s time to ditch the membership in favor of working out at home. Or perhaps you’re a certified gym rat who faithfully wrings every dollar out of your gym membership each month. Then ask yourself if you really need all the bells and whistles that an expensive gym might offer. Elliptical, dumbbells, and machines with clearly printed how-tos? Yes, of course. But a hot tub, sauna, and an out-of-pocket juice bar? Maybe not. If you can get in a solid workout without a few of those pricey extras, your body and your wallet will thank you.
Get started: Instead of a using a treadmill inside the gym, take a walk or jog around your local park each day – it’s free! If you prefer to work out at a gym, look into month-to-month membership options instead of paying a hefty price for a year-long membership up front.
3. Ditch cable and use a video streaming service instead. Cable may give you access to more channels and more shows than ever before, but let’s be honest. Who has time to watch 80 hours of the greatest moments in sports every week? Asking yourself if you could cut the cable and wait a little longer for your favorite shows to become available on a streaming service might not be a bad idea. Plus, who doesn’t love using a 3-day weekend to binge-watch an entire series every now and then? There’s also the bonus of how easy it is to cancel/reactivate a streaming service. With cable, you may be locked into a multi-year contract, installation can be a hassle (and they may add an extra installation fee), and you can forget about knowing when the cable guy is actually going to show up.
Get started: Plenty of streaming services offer free trial periods. Go ahead and give them a try, but be careful: You may have to enter your credit card number to access the free trial. Don’t forget to cancel before your trial is over, or you will be charged.
Taking time to address the luxuries you can live without (or enjoy less often) has the potential to make a huge impact on your journey to financial independence. Cutting back here and investing in yourself there – it all adds up.
In what areas do you think you can start indulging less?
If you’ve just used up your emergency fund to cover your last catastrophe, then what if a new surprise arrives before you’ve replenished your savings?
Using a credit card can be an expensive option, so you might be leery of adding debt with a high interest rate. However, you can’t let the ship sink either. What can you do?
A personal loan is an alternative in a cash-crunch crisis, but you’ll need to know a bit about how it works before signing on the bottom line.
A personal loan is an unsecured loan. The loan rate and approval are based on your credit history and the amount borrowed. Much like a credit card account, you don’t have to put up a car or house as collateral on the loan. But one area where a personal loan differs from a credit card is that it’s not a revolving line of credit. Your loan is funded in a lump sum and once you pay down the balance you won’t be able to access more credit from that loan. Your loan will be closed once you’ve paid off the balance.
The payment terms for a personal loan can be a short duration. Typically, loan terms range between 2-7 years.[i] If the loan amount is relatively large, this can mean large payments as well, without the flexibility you have with a credit card in regard to choosing your monthly payment amount.
An advantage over using a personal loan instead of a credit card is that interest rates for personal loans can be lower than you might find with credit cards. But many personal loans are plagued by fees, which can range from application fees to closing fees. These can add a significant cost to the loan even if the interest rate looks attractive. It’s important to shop around to compare the full cost of the loan if you choose to use a personal loan to navigate a cash crunch. You also might find that some fees (but not all) can be negotiated. (Hint: This may be true with certain credit cards as well.)
Before you borrow, make sure you understand the interest rate for the loan. Personal loans can be fixed rate or the rate might be variable. In that case, low rates can turn into high rates if interest rates continue to rise.
It’s also important to know the difference between a personal loan and a payday loan. Consider yourself warned – payday loans are a different type of loan, and may be an extremely expensive way to borrow. The Federal Trade Commission recommends you explore alternatives.[ii]
So if you need a personal loan to cover an emergency, your bank or credit union might be a good place to start your search.
Sometimes, a lot of money. They have the potential to throw a monkey wrench into your savings strategy, especially if you have to resort to using credit to get through an emergency. In many households, a budget covers everyday spending, including clothes, eating out, groceries, utilities, electronics, online games, and a myriad of odds and ends we need.
Sometimes, though, there may be something on the horizon that you want to purchase (like that all-inclusive trip to Cancun for your second honeymoon), or something you may need to purchase (like that 10-years-overdue bathroom remodel).
How do you get there if you have a budget for the everyday things you need, you’re setting aside money in your emergency fund, and you’re saving for retirement?
Make a goal
The way to get there is to make a plan. Let’s say you’ve got a teenager who’s going to be driving soon. Maybe you’d like to purchase a new (to him) car for his 16th birthday. You’ve done the math and decided you can put $3,000 towards the best vehicle you can find for the price (at least it will get him to his job and around town, right?). You have 1 year to save but the planning starts now.
There are 52 weeks in a year, which makes the math simple. As an estimate, you’ll need to put aside about $60 per week. (The actual number is $57.69 – $3,000 divided by 52). If you get paid weekly, put this amount aside before you buy that $6 latte or spend the $10 for extra lives in that new phone game. The last thing you want to do is create debt with small things piling up, while you’re trying to save for something bigger.
Make your savings goal realistic
You might surprise yourself by how much you can save when you have a goal in mind. Saving isn’t a magic trick, however, it’s based on discipline and math. There may be goals that seem out of reach – at least in the short-term – so you may have to adjust your goal. Let’s say you decide you want to spend a little more on the car, maybe $4,000, since your son has been working hard and making good grades. You’ve crunched the numbers but all you can really spare is the original $60 per week. You’d need to find only another $17 per week to make the more expensive car happen. If you don’t want to add to your debt, you might need to put that purchase off unless you can find a way to raise more money, like having a garage sale or picking up some overtime hours.
Hide the money from yourself
It might sound silly but it works. Money “saved” in your regular savings or checking account may be in harm’s way. Unless you’re extremely careful, it’s almost guaranteed to disappear – but not like what happens in a magic show, where the magician can always bring the volunteer back. Instead, find a safe place for your savings – a place where it can’t be spent “accidentally”, whether it’s a cookie jar or a special savings account you open specifically to fund your goal.
Pay yourself first
When you get paid, fund your savings account set up for your goal purchase first. After you’ve put this money aside, go ahead and pay some bills and buy yourself that latte if you really want to, although you may have to get by with a small rather than an extra large.
Saving up instead of piling on more credit card debt may be a much less costly way (by avoiding credit card interest) to enjoy the things you want, even if it means you’ll have to wait a bit.
A recent New York Times article details the rise of consumer debt, which has reached a new peak and now exceeds the record-breaking $12.68 trillion of consumer debt we had collectively back in 2008. In 2017, after a sharp decline followed by a rise as consumer sentiment improved, we reached a new peak of $12.73 trillion.[i]
A trillion is a big number. Numbers measured in trillions (that’s 1,000 billion, or 1,000,000 million – yes, that’s correct!) can seem abstract and difficult to relate to in our own individual situations.
While big numbers can be hard to grasp, dates are easy. 2008 is when the economy crashed, due in part to an unmanageable amount of debt.
Good debt and bad debt
Mortgage debt still makes up the majority of consumer debt, currently 68% of the total.[ii] But student loans are a category on the rise, currently more than doubling their percentage of total consumer debt when compared to 2008 figures.[iii] Coupled with a healthier economy, these new levels of consumer debt may not be a strong concern yet, but the impact of debt on individual households is often more palpable than the big-picture view of economists. Debt has a way of creeping up on families.
It’s common to hear references to “good debt”, usually when discussing real estate loans. In most cases, mortgage interest is tax deductible, helping to reduce the effective interest rate. However, if a household has too much debt, none of it feels like good debt. In fact, some people pass on home ownership altogether, investing their surplus income and living in more affordable rented apartments – instead of taking on the fluctuating cost of a house and its seemingly never-ending mortgage payments.
Credit card debt
Assuming that a mortgage and an auto loan are necessary evils for your household to work, and that student loans may pay dividends in the form of higher earning power, credit card debt deserves some closer scrutiny. The average American household owes over $15,000 in credit card debt,[iv] more than a quarter of the median household income. The average interest rate for credit cards varies depending on the type of card (rewards cards can be higher). But overall, American households are paying an average of 14.87% APR for the privilege of borrowing money to spend.[v]
That level of debt requires a sizeable payment each month. Guess what the monthly credit card interest for credit card debt of $15,000 at an interest rate of 15% would be? $187.50! (That number will go down as the balance decreases.) If your monthly payment is on the lower end, your debt won’t go down very quickly though. In fact, at $200 per month paid towards credit cards, the average household would be paying off that credit card debt for nearly 19 years, with a total interest cost of almost $30,000 – all from a $15,000 starting balance! (Hint: You can find financial calculators online to help you figure out how much it really costs to borrow money.)
You may not be trillions in debt (even though it might feel like it), but the first step to getting your debt under control is often to understand what its long-term effects might be on your family’s financial health. Formulating a strategy to tackle debt and sticking to it is the key to defeating your personal debt monsters.
Here’s the breakdown:
Nearly every type of debt can interfere with your financial goals, making you feel like a hamster on a wheel – constantly running but never actually getting anywhere. If you’ve been trying to dig yourself out of a debt hole, it’s time to take a break and look at the bigger picture.
Did you know there are often advantages to paying off certain types of debt before other types? What the simple list above doesn’t include is the average interest rates or any tax benefits to a given type of debt, which can change your priorities. Let’s check them out!
Credit card interest rates now average over 17%, and interest rates are on the rise.³ For most households, credit card debt is the place to start – stop spending on credit and start making extra payments whenever possible. Think of it as an investment in your future!
Interest rates for auto loans are usually much lower than credit card debt, often under 5% on newer loans. Interest rates aren’t the only consideration for auto loans though. New cars depreciate nearly 20% in the first year. In years 2 and 3, you can expect the value to drop another 15% each year. The moral of the story is that cars are a terrible investment but offer great utility. There’s also no tax benefit for auto loan interest. Eliminating debt as fast as possible on a rapidly depreciating asset is a sound decision.
Like auto loans, student loans are usually in the range of 5% to 10% interest. While interest rates are similar to car loans, student loan interest is often tax deductible, which can lower your effective rate. Auto loans can usually be paid off faster than student loan debt, allowing more cash flow to apply to student debt, emergency funds, or other needs.
In many cases, mortgage debt is the last type of debt to pay down. Mortgage rates are usually lower than the interest rates for credit card debt, auto loans, or student loans, and the interest is usually tax deductible. If mortgage debt keeps you awake at night, paying off other types of debt first will give you greater cash flow each month so you can begin paying down your mortgage.
When you’ve paid off your other debt and are ready to start tackling your mortgage, try paying bi-monthly (every two weeks). This simple strategy has the effect of adding one extra mortgage payment each year, reducing a 30-year loan term by several years. Because the payments are spread out instead of making one (large) 13th payment, it’s likely you won’t even notice the extra expense.
¹ El Issa, Erin. “2017 American Household Credit Card Debt Study.” NerdWallet, 2018, https://nerd.me/2ht7SZg.
² “Grasping Large Numbers.” The Endowment for Human Development, 2018, https://bit.ly/1o7Yasq.
³ “Current Credit Card Interest Rates.” Bankrate, 7.11.2018, https://bit.ly/2zGcwzM.
Much like physical health, financial health can be affected by binging, carelessness, or simply not knowing what can cause harm. But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel – as with physical health, it’s possible to reverse the downward trend if you can break your harmful habits.
A household without a budget is like a ship without a rudder, drifting aimlessly and – sooner or later – it might sink or run aground in shallow waters. Small expenses and indulgences can add up to big money over the course of a month or a year. In nearly every household, it might be possible to find some extra money just by cutting back on non-essential spending. A budget is your way of telling yourself that you may be able to have nice things if you’re disciplined about your finances.
Frequent use of credit cards
Credit cards always seem to get picked on when discussing personal finances, and often, they deserve the flack they get. Not having a budget can be a common reason for using credit, contributing to an average credit card debt of over $9,000 for balance-carrying households.[i] At an average interest rate of over 15%, credit card debt is usually the highest interest expense in a household, several times higher than auto loans, home loans, and student loans.[ii] The good news is that with a little discipline, you can start to pay down your credit card debt and help reduce your interest expense.
Mum’s the word
No matter how much income you have, money can be a stressful topic in families. This can lead to one of two potentially harmful habits.
First, talking about the family finances is often simply avoided. Conversations about kids and work and what movie you want to watch happen, but conversations about money can get swept under the rug. Are you a “saver” and your partner a “spender”? Is it the opposite? Maybe you’re both spenders or both savers. Talking (and listening) about yourself and your significant other’s tendencies can be insightful and help avoid conflicts about your finances. If you’re like most households, having an occasional chat about the budget may help keep your family on track with your goals – or help you identify new goals – or maybe set some goals if you don’t have any. Second, financial matters can be confusing – which may cause stress – especially once you get past the basics. This may tempt you to ignore the subject or to think “I’ll get around to it one day”. But getting a budget and a financial strategy in place sooner rather than later may actually help you reduce stress. Think of it as “That’s one thing off my mind now!”
Taking the time to understand your money situation and getting a budget in place is the first step to put your financial house in order. As you learn more and apply changes – even small ones – you might see your efforts start to make a difference!
Often, we may not even realize how much that borrowed money is costing us. High interest debt (like credit cards) can slowly suck the life out of your budget.
The average APR for credit cards is over 16% in the U.S.² Think about that for a second. If someone offered you a guaranteed investment that paid 16%, you’d probably walk over hot coals to sign the paperwork.
So here’s a mind-bender: Paying down that high interest debt isn’t the same as making a 16% return on an investment – it’s better.
Here’s why: A return on a standard investment is taxable, trimming as much as a third so the government can do whatever it is that governments do with the money. Paying down debt that has a 16% interest rate is like making a 20% return – or even higher – because the interest saved is after-tax money.
Like any investment, paying off high interest debt will take time to produce a meaningful return. Your “earnings” will seem low at first. They’ll seem low because they are low. Hang in there. Over time, as the balances go down and more cash is available every month, the benefit will become more apparent.
High Interest vs. Low Balance
We all want to pay off debt, even if we aren’t always vigilant about it. Debt irks us. We know someone is in our pockets. It’s tempting to pay off the small balances first because it’ll be faster to knock them out.
Granted, paying off small balances feels good – especially when it comes to making the last payment. However, the math favors going after the big fish first, the hungry plastic shark that is eating through your wallet, bank account, retirement savings, vacation plans, and everything else.³ In time, paying off high interest debt first will free up the money to pay off the small balances, too.
Summing It Up
High interest debt, usually credit cards, can cost you hundreds of dollars per year in interest – and that’s assuming you don’t buy anything else while you pay it off. Paying off your high interest debt first has the potential to save all of that money you’d end up paying in interest. And imagine how much better it might feel to pay off other debts or bolster your financial strategy with the money you save!
¹ Frankel, Matthew. “Here’s the average American’s credit card debt — and how to get yours under control.” USA TODAY, 1.25.2017, https://usat.ly/2LkHX4n.
² Dilworth, Kelly. “Rate survey: Average card APR remains at 16.15 percent.” creditcards.com, 11.21.2017, https://bit.ly/2kbCRv3.
³ Berger, Bob. “Debt Snowball Versus Debt Avalanche: What The Academic Research Shows.” Forbes, 7.20.2017, https://bit.ly/2x9Q1lN.
But don’t get too excited yet. That 0% rate won’t last. You’re also likely to find there’s a one-time balance transfer fee of 3% to 5% of the transferred amount.[i] We all know the fine print matters – a lot – but let’s look at some other considerations.
What is a balance transfer?
To attract new customers, credit card companies often send offers inviting credit card holders to transfer a balance to their company. These offers may have teaser or introductory rates, which can help reduce overall interest costs.
Teaser rate vs. the real interest rate
After the teaser rate expires, the real interest rate is going to apply. The first thing to check is if it’s higher or lower than your current interest rate. If it’s higher, you probably don’t need to read the rest of the offer and you can toss it in the shredder. But if you think you can pay the balance off before the introductory rate expires, taking the offer might make sense. However, if your balance is small, a focused approach to paying off your existing card without transferring the balance might serve you better than opening a new credit account. If – after the introductory rate expires – the interest rate is lower than what you’re paying now, it’s worth reading the offer further.
The balance transfer fee
Many balance transfers have a one-time balance transfer fee of up to 5% of the transferred amount. That can add up quickly. On a transfer of $10,000, the transfer fee could be $300 to $500, which may be enough to make you think twice. However, the offer still might have value if what you’re paying in interest currently works out to be more.
The real savings with balance transfer offers becomes evident if you transfer to a lower rate card but maintain the same payment amount (or even better, a higher amount). If you were paying the minimum or just over the minimum on the old card and continue to pay just the minimum with the new card, the balance might still linger for a long time. However, if you were paying $200 per month on the old card and you continue with a $200 per month payment on the new card at a lower interest rate, the balance will go down faster, which could save you money in interest.
For example, if you transfer a $10,000 balance from a 15% card to a new card with a 0% APR for 12 months and a 12% APR thereafter, while keeping the same monthly payment of $200, you would save nearly $3,800 in interest charges. Even if the new card has a 3% balance transfer fee, the savings would still be $3,500.[ii] Not too bad. If you’re considering a balance transfer offer, use an online calculator to make the math easier. Also, be aware that you might be able to negotiate the offer, perhaps earning a lower balance transfer fee (or no fee at all) or a lower interest rate. It costs nothing to ask!
Some finance articles quote experts or outspoken parents hailing an allowance, stating it teaches kids financial responsibility. Others argue that simply awarding an allowance (whether in exchange for doing chores around the house or not) instills nothing in children about managing money. They say that having an honest conversation about money and finances with your kids is a better solution.
According to a recent poll, the average allowance for kids age 4 to 14 is just under $9 per week, about $450 per year.¹ By age 14, the average allowance is over $12 per week. Some studies indicate that, in most cases, very little of a child’s allowance is saved. As parents, we may not have needed a study to figure that one out – but if your child is consistently out of money by Wednesday, how do you help them learn the lesson of saving so they don’t always end up “broke” (and potentially asking you for more money at the end of the week)?
There’s an app for that.
Part of the modern challenge in teaching kids about money is that cash isn’t king anymore. Today, we use credit and debit cards for the majority of our spending – and there is an ever-increasing movement toward online shopping and making payments with your phone using apps like Apple Pay, Android Pay, or Samsung Pay.
This is great for the way we live our modern, fast-paced lives, but what if technology could help us teach more complex financial concepts than a simple allowance can – concepts like how compound interest on savings works or what interest costs for debt look like? As it happens, a new breed of personal finance apps for families promises this kind of functionality. Just look at the App Store!
Money habits are formed as early as age 7.² If an allowance can teach kids about saving, compound interest, loan interest, and budgeting – with a little help from technology – perhaps the future holds a digital world where the two sides of the allowance debate can finally agree. As to whether your kids’ allowance should be paid upon completion of chores or not… Well, that’s up to you and how long your Saturday to-do list is!
Sometimes you’ll notice right away (getting halfway through the month and realizing it’s going to be peanut butter sandwiches for lunch every day). Other times it can take a while for imperfections to show (you thought you were going to have more in the vacation fund by now).
When you first start building your budget, a good place to begin is to list all the big expenses – the ones that are impossible to miss. Then it’s time to turn to the little ones that can escape notice – these are the ones that might keep your budget math from working out the way you planned.
Dig out your bank statements. Try to go back at least 6 months, if not a year. Some regular expenses may not occur monthly and can be a surprise if you only used a month or two of bank statements to track spending and build your initial budget. Many times, automatic payments or fees may be charged quarterly or even annually.
Read on for some common expenses that might sneak up on you:
Subscriptions and online services – Many of us have subscriptions for software packages or online services. Remember that deal they offered if you paid for a whole year at once? At renewal time, they may charge you for another year unless you cancel.
Memberships – Gym memberships or dues for clubs may be quarterly or annual charges as well, so they might be missed when building your budget.
Protection plans – From credit monitoring to termite protection plans, there are lots of chances to miss an annual or quarterly expense in this category.
Automatic contributions – Many charities now offer automatic contributions. These can be easy to miss when budgeting.
Things you forgot to cancel – Free trials (that require your payment info) won’t be free forever. It’s easy to miss these as well.
Bank fees – Budgeting mishaps can lead to bank fees if your balance dips. Yet another potential surprise.
Automatic deposits – Saving for your future is a great move. Just be sure to know how much is going to be withdrawn and when, so your budget doesn’t feel the pinch.
Oftentimes, when people first make the commitment to create a budget and stick to it, it can be discouraging if it doesn’t seem to be working as expected right away. Try to keep in mind that your budget is a work in progress that will evolve over time. It probably won’t be perfect from the get-go.
If you hit a speedbump, take a little time to evaluate where the numbers aren’t quite adding up, and then make adjustments as necessary. You can do this!
The typical household budget that covers the cost of raising a family, making loan payments, and saving for retirement usually doesn’t leave much room for extra spending on daydream items. However, occasionally families may come into an inheritance, you might receive a big bonus at work, or benefit from some other sort of windfall.
If you ever inherit a chunk of money (or large asset) or receive a large payout, it may be tempting to splurge on that red convertible you’ve been drooling over or book that dream trip to Hawaii you’ve always wanted to take. Unfortunately for many, though, newly-found money has the potential to disappear quickly with nothing to show for it, if you don’t have a strategy in place to handle it.
If you do receive some sort of large bonus – congratulations! But take a deep breath and consider these situations first – before you call your travel agent.
Taxes or Other Expenses
If you get a large sum of money unexpectedly, the first thing you might want to do is pull out your bucket list and see what you can check off first. But before you start spending, the reality is you’ll need to put aside some money for taxes. You may want to check with an expert – an accountant or financial advisor may have some ideas on how to reduce your liability as well.
If you suddenly own a new house or car as part of an inheritance, one thing that you may not have considered is how much it will cost to hang on to them. If you want to keep them, you’ll need to cover maintenance, insurance, and you may even need to fulfill loan payments if they aren’t paid off yet.
Pay Down Debt
If you have any debt, you’d have a hard time finding a better place to put your money once you’ve set aside some for taxes or other expenses that might be involved. It may be helpful to target debt in this order:
Fund Your Emergency Account
Before you buy that red convertible, put aside some money for a rainy day. This could be liquid funds – like a separate savings account.
Save for Retirement
Once the taxes are covered, you’ve paid down your debt, and funded your emergency account, now is the time to put some money away towards retirement. Work with your financial professional to help create the best strategy for you and your family.
Fund That College Fund
If you have kids and haven’t had a chance to save all you’d like towards their education, setting aside some money for this comes next. Again, your financial professional can recommend the best strategy for this scenario.
NOW you’re ready to go bury your toes in the sand and enjoy some new experiences! Maybe you and the family have always wanted to visit a themed resort park or vacation on a tropical island. If you’ve taken care of business responsibly with the items above and still have some cash left over – go ahead! Treat yourself!
World Financial Group, Inc., its affiliated companies and its independent associates do not offer tax and legal advice. Please consult with your personal tax and/or legal professional for further guidance.
You’ve set up your plan. Now you’ve got a budget complete with average historical spending by category. You’ve discussed it with family members, roommates, and anyone else to whom the budget applies. You’ve checked off all the boxes. Yet somehow – at the end of the month, the math isn’t working out. The budget is busted.
What went wrong? Life is full of mysteries, like who left an empty box of cereal in the cupboard? Where are my glasses? Why won’t the baby go to sleep? And, where did all my money disappear to?
For a budget to work well, you’ll need to track it regularly and often. Many times, the reason you made a budget in the first place is that there’s very little room for error with saving and spending your money. A budget’s got to be loved and nurtured, kind of like a garden. Sometimes you have to get out there and pull some weeds or dig up a few rocks to keep it thriving.
Making Your Budget
To make your budget (if you haven’t already), there are several methods you can use. Good old pencil and paper never goes out of style. And it might help you see where you stand a little faster than potentially losing your initial momentum by learning a new “app”. Specialized software or online budgeting tools can be great – but they can also be fiddly if you’re not used to them. Rather than trying to figure out complicated menus and search for hidden buttons from the get-go, you might want to try it on paper first to work through your budget and establish a limit for each category of spending. Writing out your expenditures by hand has the added benefit of helping you face reality. It hurts a little more than automated solutions if you have to write the numbers down in black and white. If you’re good with spreadsheets, Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets can also be used to quickly build a budget without a frustrating learning curve.
Tracking Your Budget
Technology can be friend or foe in the home budget process. Even though you may have started out on paper, when it comes to tracking your spending for the long haul and in real time, technology is definitely a friend.
Mobile apps come in two forms: free and not free. We’ll focus on free apps for now because it’s consistent with the goal of keeping your spending under control.
Mint.com is owned by Intuit, famous for Quicken and Quickbooks software, and makes budget tracking very simple. Mint links to your bank account and other accounts you’d like to track, so you can see a complete view of your finances at a glance either on your mobile device or on your computer. Budgets are set automatically for each category but can be changed easily. Spending and income are also automatically tracked and categorized so you can view your progress – including budget amounts remaining for the month. Cash purchases can be added from the home screen.
Another good option is Clarity Money, which tracks spending by category but also provides an easy way to cancel subscriptions and access your free VantageScore Credit Score (by Experian). Clarity Money was featured by Google Play as a “Best of 2017” and is also available for iOS.¹
Paper or spreadsheet methods help to make the budgeting process more tangible. Automated tracking makes it easy to monitor your progress against your budget – and to maybe think twice about spending on impulse.
The important thing is to think of your budget like a garden – once you have it planned and laid out, it’s going to take regular maintenance to ensure it stays beautiful.
¹ “Best Daily Helper.” Google Play, https://play.google.com/store/apps/topic?id=campaign_editorial_apps_productivity_bestof2017&hl=en.