2020 witnessed home prices soar by 15% to average more than $320,000–a prohibitive price for many seeking to buy their first house.¹
But even if you aren’t ready to buy a house today, there are steps you can take now that may better position you to become a homeowner in the future!
Build your emergency fund
An emergency fund is a critical line of financial defense that can help lay the foundation for buying a house. That’s because an emergency fund provides a cash cushion while you prepare to purchase your home and then begin paying off your mortgage. The unexpected expenses of homeownership can be far less detrimental to your long-term goals when you have a dedicated fund specifically designed to cover emergencies!
Increase your credit score
An excellent credit score is imperative for first time home buyers for two reasons…
First, actions that increase your credit score–debt management and paying your bills on time–can help create a solid financial foundation as you shoulder the responsibility of servicing a mortgage.
Second, lenders typically offer more favorable loan terms to people with high credit scores. That can result in more cash flow over the life of your mortgage. A recent survey discovered that mortgage holders with very good credit scores save more than $40,000 over the lifetime of their loan!²
Take steps to boost your credit score before you start house hunting. Automate your bill payments so they’re always on time, and begin reducing the balances on your credit cards, student loans, and auto loans!
Start saving for your down payment ASAP
Aim to have a down payment of at least 20% of your future home’s value saved before the home buying process begins.
Why? Because paying more up front and borrowing less to buy your home reduces the interest you’ll owe over the long-term. A substantial down payment might also lower the price of closing costs and negate your need to buy private mortgage insurance. Usually, the higher your down payment, the better!
The time to lay the groundwork for buying your first house is now. Build an emergency fund, increase your credit score, and save enough for a significant down payment. Then, search for a house that meets your needs and won’t break the bank!
¹ “U.S. home prices hit a record high in 2020. Is home buying still affordable?,” Peter Miller, The Mortgage Reports, Oct 13, 2020, https://themortgagereports.com/70539/record-high-prices-record-low-mortgage-rates-during-covid#:~:text=Home%20values%20and%20sales%20prices,on%20record%2C%E2%80%9D%20says%20Redfin.
² “Raising a ‘Fair’ Credit Score to ‘Very Good’ Could Save Over $56,000,” Kali McFadden, LendingTree, Jan 7, 2020, https://www.lendingtree.com/personal/study-raising-credit-score-saves-money/
But maybe you – or a friend – learned about those consequences the hard way. Most late bill payers fall into 1 of 3 camps: they forget to pay on time, they don’t have enough income, or they have enough income but spend it on other things.
In case you – or your friend – are stuck in 1 of these camps, consider the following tips to help pay the bills on time.
I forget to pay my bills on time.
If this is you, you’re actually in a more advantageous position. There are many easy fixes that can help get you back on track.
Use a calendar. This is a tried and true, but often underutilized, method to track your bill due dates. When you get a notice for a bill – either by email, text, or snail mail – jot the due date on your calendar. You can also set a reminder if you use an electronic calendar.
Fiddle with your due dates. Many companies offer flexible due dates. Experiment with what due dates work for you. Some people like to pay their bills all together at the beginning of the month. You may find that you like to pay some bills in the beginning and some in the middle of the month. It’s up to you!
Take advantage of grace period/late fee waivers. If you do forget about a bill and have to make a late payment, give the company a call and ask them to waive the late fee. Late fees can add up, ranging from $10-50 depending on the account. It’s worth a try!
I don’t have the money to pay all my bills.
If your income doesn’t cover your outgo no matter how diligently you pinch those pennies, it won’t matter what type of bill payment method you use, you’re going to have trouble. If you’re in this situation, there are 2 solutions: increase your earnings or decrease your expenses.
Find a side gig. Take a temporary part-time job to make some extra income. Delivering pizza in the evenings or on weekends might be worth doing for a few months to make some extra dough.
Shop around. Shop around for savings. Prices vary on almost everything. Take a little extra time to make sure you’re getting the rock-bottom best prices on your insurance, cable, phone plans, groceries, utilities, etc.
I overspend and don’t have enough left to pay my bills.
Managing income and expenses takes some practice and persistence, but it is doable! If you find yourself consistently overspending without enough left over to cover your bills, try the following:
Create a budget. Get familiar with your income and expenses. This is the only way to know how much disposable income you’re going to end up with every month. You can track your budget daily on an app like PocketGuard, Wallet, or Home Budget.
Stash the money for bills in a separate account. Put your bill money in a separate checking or savings account. This will keep it quarantined from your spending money and help make sure it’s there when the bills come due.
Good Financial Habits
If you feel bill-paying-challenged, or you have a friend who is, try some of the above tips. Taking care of your obligations when you need to can relieve stress, build good credit, and reinforce healthy spending habits for life!
At the least, a low score can saddle you with high interest rates, or at the worst, prevent you from getting important loans.(1) It can even be a roadblock to renting a house or getting a job!(2)
But what exactly is a credit score? And how is it different from a credit report? It turns out the two have a close relationship. Let’s explore what they are and how they relate to each other.
Your credit report is simply a record of your credit history. Let’s break that down.
Many of us carry some form of debt. It might be a mortgage, student loans, or credit card debt (or all three!). Some people are really disciplined about paying down debt. Others fall on hard times or use debt to fuel frivolous spending and then aren’t able to return the borrowed money. As a result, lenders typically want to know how reliable, or credit worthy, someone is before giving out a loan.
But predicting if someone will be able to pay off a loan is tricky business. Lenders can’t look into the future, so they have to look at a potential borrower’s past regarding debt. They’re interested in late payments, defaulted loans, bankruptcies, and more, to determine if they can trust someone to pay them back. All of this information is compiled into a document that we know as a credit report.
All of the information from someone’s credit report gets plugged into an algorithm. It’s goal? Rate how likely they are to pay back their creditors. The number that the algorithm spits out after crunching the numbers on the credit report is the credit score. Lenders can check your score to get an idea of whether (or not) you’ll be able to pay them back.
Think of a credit report like a test and the credit score as your grade. The test contains the actual details of how you’ve performed. It’s the record of right and wrong answers that you’ve written down. The grade is just a shorthand way to evaluate your performance.
So are credit reports and credit scores the same thing? No. Are they closely related? Yes! A bulletproof credit report will lead to a higher credit score, while a report plagued by late payments will torpedo your final grade. And that number can make all the difference in your financial well-being!
1) Latoya Irby, “The Side Effects of Bad Credit,” The Balance, April 5, 2020.
2) Latoya Irby, “The Side Effects of Bad Credit,” The Balance, April 5, 2020.
However, there is a sizeable portion of the United States population, numbering in the tens of millions of individuals[i], who either have no credit history, credit history that’s too limited to provide a score, or credit history that’s too old to provide a score. These people may be rejected by lenders simply because they can’t prove their creditworthiness.
A large segment of these citizens are either just becoming adults and have yet to build a score, have little access to today’s modern financial system, or are from older generations who no longer need loans and thus their history has become “stale” or too old for scoring purposes. New immigrants who have no credit history in the United States also face this issue. The invisibles tend to cluster in dense urban centers or in small, rural towns, and, according to the latest Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s report, lack of internet access seems to have a stronger correlation to credit invisibility than access to a physical bank branch.[ii]
The detriment of credit invisibility
It might seem better to always cover your bills with cash and simply save up for whatever items you wish to purchase. And this is generally a sound practice. However, if doing this leads to credit invisibility, it may have a detrimental effect on your financial life.
Most people – even if they have enough money on hand to cover normal bills and the occasional emergency – might someday want to purchase a home, start a business, or need a new car. It’s not usual that someone could pay for these high-dollar items with cash. Entering a loan agreement for any of these situations may be something you choose to do if the benefits seem to outweigh the costs, and if you have a solid strategy in place to repay the loan. If you can’t prove your creditworthiness, it might be more difficult to secure a loan for these things.
How to avoid being credit invisible
If you are credit invisible because you have little to no assets and lenders refuse to open accounts for you, one possibility is obtaining a secured credit card.[iii] The cardholder deposits cash and the deposit amount is usually the credit limit. The issuer has zero liability against your non-repayment, because they already have the money. Using a secured card and paying the balance back on time helps you build a credit history if you have none.
Once you’ve started to build a history, you may be able to apply for a “real” credit card. At that point, you’ll want to be cautious with your spending (according to a budget, of course) and always make sure to pay your bill on time, especially in full whenever possible so you can avoid interest. Then you should be on your way to establishing a solid credit history, which may help you with other milestones in life, like buying a home, replacing an old car, or even starting a new business venture with a friend.
Some of which are useful later in life, some of which are hurriedly memorized and then promptly forgotten, and some of which barely get a passing glance. In decades past, financial literacy wasn’t an emphasis in school curriculum – unless you include the odd math problem that involved interest rate calculations. For all our years of education, as a nation we were woefully unprepared for one of the largest challenges in adult life: financial survival.
Recently, however, schools have begun to introduce various topics regarding financial literacy to the K-12 curriculum. Some states have fared better than others in this effort, with graded results ranging from A to F, as measured in an analysis done by the Washington Post.[i] Read on for the breakdown.
How we’re doing so far
In its annual Survey of the States, the Council for Economic Education reported that not one state had added personal finance to their K-12 standard curriculum since 2016, and that only 22 states require high school students to take a course in economics. Only 17 of the 50 states require students to take a course in personal finance.[ii]
We can’t count on schools (at least not right now)
While it’s easy to pick on schools and state governments for not including financial literacy education in the past and for only making small strides in curriculums today, that’s not solving the problem that current generations don’t understand how money works. As with many things, the responsibility – at least in the short-term – is falling to parents to help educate younger people on financial matters.
Other financial literacy resources
Given the general lack of financial education provided in schools, unsurprisingly, most teens look to their parents to learn money management skills.[iii] Fortunately, there are some great online resources that can help begin the conversation and help educate both parents and children on topics such as budgeting, how (or if) to use credit cards, differences in types of bank accounts, how to save, managing credit scores, etc.
Pepperdine University offers a “Financial Literacy Guide for Kids, Teens and Students”[iv], which covers many of the basics but also provides a useful set of links to resources where kids and parents alike can learn more through interactive games, quizzes, and demonstrations.
Included highlights are mobile apps which can be useful for budgeting, saving, and so forth, and even listings of websites that can help kids find scholarships or grants.
So if you feel like you haven’t learned quite as much about money and finances that you wish you had in school, contact me so that we can explore how money works together, and I can help put a strategy in place for you and your family!
For most people, however, at some point in life we’ll need access to credit, which is why we should keep an eye on our credit scores and make adjustments to our financial behavior to help keep our credit scores as high as possible.
Interest rates are generally lower with better credit scores
As of December 2018, the average credit card interest rate can be anywhere from 15.37% to 20.90%, but can rocket up to 29.99% in some cases if a payment is missed and you fall prey to a late payment penalty. On the other side of the scale, high credit scores can earn interest rates that are lower than average, which may reduce the cost of credit if you need it.[i]
It’s easy to pick on credit cards because of their typically high interest rates, but a good credit score may save you money on long-term loans like your mortgage, or on loans that occur repeatedly, such as auto loans. Auto leasing rates can also be considerably less expensive if you have good credit.[ii]
A higher interest rate on one or two balances may not seem like a big deal. However, your credit score is probably affecting the rates on all or most of your credit-based transactions, which may cost you money every month (or may save you money every month).
Insurance rates can be lower
It’s become commonplace for insurers to weigh credit as a risk factor when determining premiums for auto or home insurance. Somewhere in their loss statistics, insurers found a correlation between credit and risk of a loss, and as a result, depending on your state, consumers with a good credit score can generally expect lower insurance rates if all other factors are equal.[iii] In most households, insurance is a sizable monthly expense, so keeping your rates as low as possible can be beneficial to your budget.
Avoid security deposits and get easier approval
Your credit score comes into play with expenses such as utilities.[iv] Utility providers routinely require security deposits before beginning service for many consumers. With a good credit score, it may be possible to bypass security deposit requirements or to earn a reduced security deposit amount, keeping more cash freed up to use as you see fit.
The same concept also applies to cell phone service providers. With a good credit score, you’ll probably have more choices from providers, and be able to get later model phones sooner. Without a good credit score, however, you may be forced to choose from no contract providers, which often have service limitations or a smaller offering of mobile devices.
Taking steps to protect your credit score and to improve it, if it needs a little help, may save you money in the long run and open up new opportunities.
Have you checked your credit score lately? It’s free![v]
Keeping your credit in tip top shape may actually help save you money in some cases. With that in mind, how do you know if it’s a good idea to open a new credit card or to close some credit card accounts? Let’s find out!
Opening Credit Card Accounts
Opening a new credit card isn’t necessarily detrimental to your credit score in the long term, although there may be some potential negatives in the short term. As you might expect, opening a new credit card account will place a new inquiry on your credit report, which could cause a drop in your credit score. Any negative effect due to the inquiry is often temporary, but the long-term effect depends on how you use the account after that (not making minimum payments, carrying a high balance, etc.).
Opening a new credit card account can affect your credit rating in two other ways. The average age of your credit accounts can be lowered since you’ve added a credit account that’s brand new (i.e., the older the account, the better it is for your score). On the plus side, opening a new credit card account can reduce your credit utilization. For example, if you had $5000 in available credit with $2500 in credit card balances, your credit utilization is 50%. Adding another card with $2500 in available credit with the same balance total of $2500 drops your credit utilization to 33%. A lower credit utilization can help your score.
Closing Credit Card Accounts
Closing a credit card account can also affect your credit score, largely due to some of the same considerations for opening new credit card accounts. Generally speaking, closing a credit card account likely won’t help boost your credit score, and doing so could possibly lower your credit score for the same reasons above (lowering the average age of your accounts, increasing your credit utilization, etc.).
First, the positive reasons to close the account: This might be obvious, but closing a credit card account will prevent you from using it. If discipline has been a challenge, instead of closing the account, you might consider simply cutting up the card or placing it in a lockbox.
Second, the negative reasons to close the account: Closing a credit card account when you have outstanding balances on other credit card accounts will raise your credit utilization. A higher credit utilization can cause your credit rating to fall. You’ll also want to consider the average age of all of your accounts, which can play a big role in your credit score. A longer history is better. Closing a credit account that was established long ago can impact your credit score negatively by lowering your average account age.
Fair Isaac, the company responsible for assigning FICO scores, recommends not closing credit card accounts if your goal is to raise or preserve your credit score.[i]
Would opening or closing a bank account have any effect on my score?\ Closing a bank account has no effect on your credit rating and normally doesn’t appear on your credit report at all. When you open a bank account, however, your bank may perform a credit inquiry, particularly if you apply for overdraft protection. A hard inquiry (such as an overdraft protection application) can cause a temporary drop in your credit score. Soft inquiries – which are also common for banks – will appear on your credit report but do not affect your credit rating. Banks may also check your report from ChexSystems[ii], a company that reports on consumer bank accounts, including overdraft history and any unresolved balances on closed accounts.[iii]