Category: Debt Elimination

Are Credit Cards Evil?

If you listen to certain radio talk-show hosts you might think that credit cards are evil. Credit cards are NOT evil. They are a tool, but just like with any other tool, they need to be used responsibly. If you can’t handle a tool you shouldn’t use it.

I think you should have one or even several credit cards. I have one main one that I use for cash back, a Delta card that I used to get a free flight, an Amazon card that gives me 5% cash back on Amazon and the Costco credit card that I use to get 4% cash back on gas.

But what about all the credit cards versus cash spending studies?

No doubt you’ve heard studies that prove that we spend more with credit than we do with cash. It is very possible that these are myths.

The most popular is the study that Dun & Bradstreet supposedly did where they found that people spend 12-18% more when using credit cards instead of cash. However, no one can seem to find that study. Everyone cites it, but no one cites the source.

There is also a study that McDonald’s reports that the average ticket price is $7 when people pay with credit and $4.50 when they pay with cash. Again, though, no one can find the original source (1).

Mark Wells, CFO of the payment processing company for McDonald’s reports that, “When an establishment accepts credit cards, the average ticket size goes up. We anticipate a 40 percent increase in the average ticket size for those franchises implementing credit card processing for the first time” (2). Again, though, Wells doesn’t provide any supporting data for this statistic.

While those studies might be made up, it is important that you practice responsible spending when using credit cards.

  • If you can’t pay the full balance off each month, don’t use credit cards.
  • If you think you will spend more with cards than cash, use cash.
  • Whenever you use your card you should immediately transfer money from a category in your budget and move it to the credit card category. For example, when I buy gas at Costco I immediately enter the transaction in my budgeting software. It records it as a credit card transaction and moves the amount I spent from the gas category to the Costco credit card category.

You’re better off not using credit cards if you can’t pay them off during the billing cycle. If you’re paying 12.9% interest and getting 1.5% cashback, you’re clearly not coming out ahead.

If, however, you can use them wisely, and you pay them off in full before any interest is charged, why not take advantage of the rewards?

  1. Most websites that talk about these two studies cite this article on NerdWallet as their source: https://www.nerdwallet.com/blog/credit-cards/credit-cards-make-you-spend-more/. Citing a website that didn’t do the original study, and doesn’t cite their source, is not a proper citation and proves nothing.
  2. http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20031021005628/en/Credit-Cards-Process-Faster-Cash-McDonalds-Franchises

How We Almost Lost a Home

by Ryan H. Law

About 15 years ago my wife and I moved to Indiana, excited to start a new adventure far from where we both grew up. We rented a great apartment that fit our needs and expenses. It was close to the library and shopping, not too far from my work and it had a nice pool. It was perfect.

build a homeHowever, after a while, we got restless. We wanted to own a home. After all, that is the American Dream, right? So we started looking for homes. We found a brand new community that was being built, and they offered 100% financing. We picked out a home we liked and put down some earnest money, then they started building it. What an exciting time!

There were some red flags, though. The first one was that we couldn’t actually qualify for the loan on our own. We didn’t have enough income or credit history. The sellers used some “creative financing strategies” to get us qualified, which involved using a tax credit that would bring our income up. We also had to get a co-signer.

Red-FlagAnother red flag was that we had no money for a down payment or closing costs. Of course, to the seller, that was no problem. They could just roll it all in to the loan.

We really couldn’t afford the payment, either, but we were excited about the home and figured if we qualified, that things would work out. We drove out nearly every day to see the progress on our home.

At some point, though, reality set in. We really couldn’t afford this home. We panicked and contacted the seller, asking to be released from our contract. Of course, they said no. We were committed. We explained that we couldn’t really afford it, but that didn’t deter them. We had a real estate lawyer look over our contract. He said he couldn’t see a way out. We weren’t sure what to do.

We got lucky, though. They had committed to have it done by a certain date, but they got behind on construction. We were able to argue that they had broken the contract, and we were therefore no longer bound by it.  They let us get out of the contract and sent our earnest money back.

Perhaps they also realized that if they had forced us to follow through, we might have lost the home in a foreclosure or short sale, which would have looked bad in this brand new community.

We ended up moving shortly after that, and have been very cautious about home buying since that time. In fact, we waited more than 7 years before we actually purchased our first home.

Along the way we have learned some important lessons. Before you buy a home, I recommend you consider the following:

  1. Make sure your income is stable.
  2. Have 3-6 months’ worth of expenses in an emergency funds in the bank.
  3. Pay off ALL high interest debt (credit cards, vehicles, student loans, etc).
  4. Save up 20% for a down payment. If you put down at least 20%, you don’t have to pay Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI). PMI is generally 1% of the loan annually. On a $200,000 home that will be $2,000 per year, or $166 a month. That’s a lot to be adding to a mortgage payment each month.
  5. Make sure your TOTAL home cost (Principal, Interest, Taxes, Insurance, HOA fees) is no more than 25% of your take home pay. The lender will likely qualify you for much more than you can afford, but stick with your price range. Let your Real Estate agent know exactly the price range you are looking at, and stick with it. We were fortunate to find a great Realtor® in Missouri[1] who helped us find exactly what we were looking for in the price range we were comfortable with. Find someone you trust who will help you do what is best for you, not their commission.
  6. Remember that homes come with extra expenses. For example, if the water heater goes out in your home, you have to pay for a new one. Experts recommend that you save anywhere from 1-4% of your home’s value per year for maintenance and repairs. On a $200,000 home that is $2,000 – $8,000. While $8,000 is probably a bit high, the reality is that you will have to pay for repairs.
  7. I recommend that, on top of repair money, you have enough saved up to pay your insurance deductible. After all, if the roof gets destroyed in a hail storm, the insurance company will pay most of the repairs, but you have to pay your deductible first. That can be anywhere from $1,000 – $5,000.

Buying a home can be a great decision. In general, homes appreciate in value, meaning that you should be able to sell it in the future for more than you bought it for. Even that isn’t always true, though. Remember 2008? Some markets have yet to fully recover from that housing crash. Go slowly and buy what you can afford when you are ready.


 

[1] A shout-out to our friend and Realtor® Ted Webber: http://www.tedwebber.com/.

Financial Planning Tool: PowerPay

By Ryan H. Law

In response to the Credit Card Act of 2009 many credit card issuers have raised rates, raised minimum payments, lowered credit limits and added on extra fees.

Here are some statistics:

  • 53% of 2000 people surveyed reported an increase in their credit card interest rate in the past year.  One card increased its rate up to 79.9%.  That’s not a typo – 79.9%!
  • 26% reported reduced credit limits
  • 21% reported increased fees

Source: Credit Card Tricks and Traps http://www.rd.com/advice-and-know-how/credit-card-tricks-and-traps/article175291.html

So do you just have to put up with this from your credit card issuers?  Of course not!

If you are finished paying too much of your hard earned money to interest and fees, then it’s time for you to develop a debt elimination plan.  Here’s what you need to do:

  • Make a commitment to STOP charging things to your credit cards.  Cut the cards up, shred them or do whatever you need to do to stop using your cards.
  • Build up an emergency fund.  If you use your credit card for emergencies, you can avoid doing that in the future by building up an emergency fund.  Experts recommend you have 3-6 months of expenses saved up.  Make that your long-term goal.  For the time being, though, try to get one full paycheck in the bank as soon as possible.
  • Gather up all of your recent statements and make a list that has the creditor name, amount owed, minimum payment and interest rate.  For our example let’s use the following numbers:
Creditor Name Amount Owed Minimum Payment Interest Rate
Citicard $14,567 $230 18%
Discover $994 $60 12%
Visa $7729 $262 29%
Student Loans $19,334 $223 6.8%
Auto Loan $21,000 $406 6%
  • Pay the minimum on each card and any extra towards your highest interest loan.  A common mistake people make if they have an extra $50 is to put $20 on this card, $10 on another, etc.  If you concentrate any extra money on one debt, though, you will get it paid off much faster.
  • Make Power Payments.  When you have paid off your first debt, roll that amount over to start paying on your next highest interest rate debt.  It would look like this:
Visa Citicard Discover Student Loan Auto Loan
$262 $230 $60 $223 $406
$262 $230 $60 $223 $406
$492 $60 $223 $406
$492 $60 $223 $406
$552 $223 $406
$775 $406

Can you see how powerful this technique is?  Using this technique can save you thousands of dollars in interest and shave years off your repayment time.

There is software available that will help you set this up and give you detailed payment calendars.  It was developed by Utah State University Extension and is available online, for free.  The software is called Power Pay and you can access it at http://www.powerpay.org (note: if you have an iPad or iPhone you can access an app from the homepage of that website).

PowerPay

I plugged the numbers above into the software and here are the results:

Paying the debts off without power payments will take you 16 years, 10 months to pay off.  The total you will pay back is $112,104.09, with $48,480.09 being interest!

If you pay using power payments, though, it will take you 6 years, 5 months to pay off with a total payoff of $90,891.04 ($27,267.04 being interest).

Power payments save you 10 years and 5 months and $21,213.05 in interest!

There is also a feature on Power Pay where you can add extra payments, so if you are getting a tax refund you can plug that in there, or if you can devote an extra $100 to debt you can plug that in there.

I encourage you to take some time to plug your own information in the software to see how power payments will benefit you.

The Importance of Personal Financial Planning for College Graduates

by Ryan H. Law

Over the past 6 weeks I saw more than 500 graduating seniors come through my office (The Office for Financial Success) to receive student loan exit counseling. Exit counseling is required for all graduating students with federal student loans. At the University of Missouri they can choose to do the counseling online or they can come through our office and meet with another student who is trained to offer this counseling.

Seeing all these seniors come through our doors has caused me to reflect on my own graduation and some things I did well as well as some things I wish I had known or done upon graduation.

Today’s post will focus on some specific steps that I think all graduating seniors should take (but don’t worry – it’s good advice for everyone – even if you haven’t graduated yet or graduated years ago).

Become financially literate

Financial literacy in the United States is, unfortunately, not widespread. Most high school students fail a personal finance exam (less than 50% of questions answered correctly) and college students score just 62%[1]. One of the best things you can do for your future is to become financially literate. If you can take a college course in personal finance I highly recommend it. In a 3-credit personal finance class you will learn about everything on this list and you will be more financially literate by the end of the course than most people in America. If you don’t have the option to take one on campus look into one of the many excellent Open Courseware classes – you won’t get any college credit for it, but you can’t beat the price tag – free![2]

As a part of becoming financially literate I recommend you learn the fundamentals of how the U.S. economy works. Learn about the business cycle, unemployment rates, inflation and interest rates. All of these things affect your personal finances, so a basic understanding of them is helpful.

Don’t get your financial advice from amateurs

Financial advice can be found almost anywhere – it is prolific on the internet and on the bookshelves at libraries and bookstores. However, I would caution you to be careful that you are not getting your financial advice from amateurs. For example, a few years back there was a taxi driver who “figured out the system to wealth” day-trading stocks. A lot of people lost a lot of money following his advice. Be careful of advice received from friends or family about the latest “hot tip” on a stock. This tip, like all the others, will take you back to the first recommended suggestion – a good solid class will teach you much about how to win at personal finance.

Establish financial goals and take action to achieve them

You need to start thinking about some short and long-term financial goals. How soon do you want to pay off your consumer debt? How much money do you need at retirement? Do you plan to buy a home eventually? Do you plan to have children and send them to college? What are your plans for increasing your earning potential? I recommend you take some time to sit down and make some decisions about where you are financially, where you want to be, and how you plan to get there.

Learn to budget

No company would go one day without a good, solid budget. They understand how much is coming in, how much is going out and exactly where those dollars are going. You should likewise have a budget. A budget is not a record of where your money went (though that is important as well); it is a plan for where you want your money to go. Learn the process for budgeting then discipline yourself to take action and stick to your budget[3]. A key component of your budget should be to spend less than you earn and to pay yourself first. As part of your budget you should work diligently to build up a 3-6 month emergency fund.

Develop a net worth statement and update it annually

A net worth statement is a snapshot of a particular moment in time. It should list all of your assets (everything you own that is worth money) and all of your liabilities (debts). Minus your liabilities from your assets and you will come up with your net worth. You should update this annually to see how you are doing. Over time this number should increase.

Care about your credit

You should know what your credit report contains[4], what your credit score is and what steps you can take to improve that score[5]. Your credit score determines what interest rate you pay on loans, what your auto insurance will cost, if you can rent certain apartments, and in some cases if you can even get a particular job.

Pay off consumer debt as quickly as possible

Carrying consumer debt, especially credit card debt, is toxic to your financial goals. Pay it off as quickly as possible by paying more than the minimum and refusing to take on additional unnecessary debt[6].

Start saving now for retirement and take advantage of employer-sponsored retirement plans such as a 401(k) or 403(b)

If your employer offers a tax-advantaged retirement savings plan, such as a 401(k) or 403(b), take advantage of it! You will save on taxes now and can often get free money through a company “match” of your savings.

Time is your best friend when it comes to saving for retirement. If a 23-year old saves $3000 a year at 8% interest until he or she is age 65 they will have about $912,000 in the bank. If a 33-year old does the same thing they will have about $402,000. That is the power of compound interest!

Understand taxes, insurance and basic estate planning

Even if you pay someone else to prepare your tax return for you, you need to understand your own taxes. You should know your average tax rate, your marginal tax rate, and some steps you can take to reduce your tax burden. You should understand the difference between taking the standard deduction and itemizing deductions.

You also need to understand your insurance products. We spend a lot of money on disability insurance, life insurance, auto insurance, renter’s or homeowner’s insurance and other types of insurance. You should understand what your policy covers, what it doesn’t cover and how much you are paying for each one. You should occasionally check around to see if you can get lower cost insurance.

Everyone needs to do some basic estate planning. Even if you are single with no dependents you at least need a basic will, healthcare directives and a power of attorney. As your situation changes you should review these documents and update them and add other important estate planning documents as necessary.

Start an uncomplicated financial record-keeping system

You and your loved ones should know where important financial documents are and what each one is for. For example, if I were to pass away today I would want my wife to know exactly where my life insurance policies are and how to begin the process of collecting that money. The system I use is a fireproof file box with the HomeFile Organizer system[7]. With this low-cost system I can file and find auto titles, insurance policies, medical records, warranties and any other financial documents.

Give yourself an annual financial checkup

I recommend that you set aside a day each year to give yourself a financial checkup. Review your goals, your budget, your net worth, your insurance and estate policies, your savings and your debt level and determine some steps you can take to improve in each area. As part of the review I recommend you choose a new personal finance book to read over the next year. Take this opportunity to reassess where you are and determine a plan for how to get to the next level.

Conclusion

Hopefully you got some good ideas about improving your financial situation from this list. I recommend you choose just one or two things from this list that you can take action on today. As that becomes a habit you can incorporate another item until you have implemented all of them that fit your situation.

[2] If you are looking for an excellent course I recommend Alena Johnson’s Family Finance course from Utah State Open Courseware: http://ocw.usu.edu/Family__Consumer____Human_Development/Family_Finance/index.html. This is the course I took that convinced me to change my major and helped determine my life’s work.
[3] www.Mint.com is a great, free resource for budgeting. The software I personally use can be found at www.YNAB.com. It isn’t free, but I highly recommend it.
[4] www.AnnualCreditReport.com is the only place to get a free copy of all three of your credit reports annually
[5] www.MyFico.com has a great explanation of credit scores and is the most reliable place to purchase your score.
[6] www.PowerPay.org is a great free resource to figure out how you can pay your debt off quickly

The Fiscal Cliff

by Ryan Law

With President Obama’s re-election a number of news articles are saying one of his first challenges is to deal with the upcoming “fiscal cliff”. Today’s article will attempt to explain what that means in simple terms and what it can mean in your life.

The “Fiscal Cliff” will begin on January 1, 2013 and means $7 trillion in tax increases and spending cuts over the next ten years. On the front-end that may not sound like a bad thing, but it could be crippling to the economy the way it is set up.

Spending Cuts

In 2011 the Budget Control Act was passed that increased the debt ceiling and called for a bipartisan debt-reduction deal or there would be automatic spending cuts. No deal was reached, so the following spending cuts begin in 2013:

  • Defense – $50 billion is cut from discretionary defense spending each year for the next ten years. Some military officials have said these cuts would be “devastating”[i]
  • Non-defense – a similar amount would be cut each year from non-defense spending. Some programs, like Medicaid, Social Security, civil and military employee pay and veterans benefits, are protected, but everything else, including education and air traffic safety, will be affected.

Tax Increases

The Bush Tax cuts would be eliminated, which means specifically:

  • Marginal tax rates will increase – they will go from current levels of 10, 15, 28, 33 and 35% to 15, 28, 31, 36 and 39.6%, respectively.
  • Capital gains rates will increase from 15% to 20%
  • Child tax credit will decrease from $1000 per child down to $500
  • The marriage penalty relief will expire
  • The estate tax exemption will go from $5 million to $1 million

In addition, the payroll tax holiday will expire, taking your payroll taxes from 4.2% to 6.2%, which means someone earning $30,000 will pay an extra $50 per month in payroll taxes

The Challenges

Experts have commented that there are two big challenges Congress and the President face:

1. If all tax cuts stay where they are and no cuts are made in federal spending we will continue to face a mounting deficit of $1 trillion per year, which is unsustainable.

2. If all the cuts go into effect the economy could be thrown back into a recession (cuts often mean job elimination or pay cuts and those with jobs will pay higher taxes).

Neither option is a good one – obviously Congress and the President need to work together to figure out the best path. Both parties have expressed that they plan to work together to come up with a solution.

While the country faces difficult economic challenges and has a long road ahead to get on solid financial ground, you can take steps to stabilize your own financial situation. As we always preach, learn to live on a budget, get out of debt and set up an emergency fund. These three steps can lead to financial peace of mind.