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10 Places Where You Can Earn Six Figures and Still Be Broke

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A household bringing in $100,000 each year might look financially stable on paper. But after factoring in taxes, housing, transportation, and other basic budget line items, a new MagnifyMoney analysis found six-figure families can easily struggle to make ends meet.

In our report, The Best and Worst Cities to Live On Six Figures, we analyzed 381 major metros across the U.S. to see where a family earning $100,000 has the most wiggle room in their budgets.

We based our estimates on a two-earner household with two adults and one child and a gross annual income of $100,000 ($8,333 per month).

Then we created a reasonable budget for monthly expenses and subtracted that total from their after-tax income. We ranked cities from worst (least amount of money left over at the end of each month) to best (the most amount of money left over at the end of each month).

Behind the Budget:

We based most of our budget estimates on publicly available data, but we had to make some assumptions. We assumed one of the household earners carries some student debt, that all families set aside at least 5% in personal savings, and that they enjoy some entertainment throughout the month. That budget includes basic necessities: housing, food, transportation, child care, as well as variable spending on student debt, savings, and entertainment. See our full methodology here.

Key Findings

  • In 11 out of 381 metro areas analyzed, households earning six figures would spend more than 90% of their total take-home pay on basic monthly expenses. The average across all 381 metros is 75% of take-home pay spent on monthly expenses.
  • In 71 out of 381 metro areas analyzed, households earning six figures are spending more than 75% of their budget on basic monthly expenses.
  • Six figures and broke in Washington, D.C.: The worst metro area for a family earning $100,000 includes Washington, D.C. and neighboring cities Arlington and Alexandria, Va. After factoring in monthly expenses, families would be $315 in the red. Stamford, CT, San Jose, CA, San Francisco, CA, and the New York City area round out the 5 worst areas for affordability.
  • California is the ultimate budget killer: The Golden State is home to 9 out of the top 20 worst metros for six-figure families, including San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Cruz, San Diego and Napa. However, Los Angeles area six-figure families are able to save about $500 a month more than San Francisco area families, thanks to lower housing costs.
  • Tennessee dominates: If you’re looking for bang for your buck, it doesn’t get more affordable than Tennessee. The top three best metros for six-figure households are in Tennessee, and a total of five out of the top 10 best metros on the list are from the Volunteer State.
  • Living large in Johnson City, Tenn.: The best metro area for a family earning $100,000 is Johnson City, Tenn., where families only spend 62% of their household budgets on basic expenses. After factoring in monthly expenses, families would have a surplus of over $2,400 each month.
  • The South reigns supreme. The Southeast and Southwest tied as the best region for six-figure families, requiring them to use an average of only 70% of their income on basic expenses.
  • Steer clear of the coasts. In another tie, the Northeast and West ranked worst among the five regions. On average, six-figure households spend 80% of their earnings in these regions.
  • Housing is a budget buster. In 64 out of 381 metros, six-figure households are spending more than one-quarter of their monthly income on housing. In 18 out of 381 metros, six-figure households are spending more than one-third of their budget on housing.
  • Child care isn’t cheap. Child care expenses consume 10% or more of household budgets in 42% all metro areas (161 of 381).

View the complete data here.

The WORST Metros for Six-Figure Households: By the Numbers

1. Washington, D.C./Alexandria/Arlington, VA

It’s shockingly easy for a household earning $100,000 to live beyond their means in this high-cost metro area. To meet the basic costs of these seven expenses, they would spend 5% more than they actually earn after taxes, leaving them $315 in the red. Housing and childcare alone consume a whopping 60% of the household budget of a family living in this metro area.

2. Bridgeport/Stamford/Norwalk, CT

Thanks mostly to lower average child care costs ($959 per month vs. $1,000+ in metros like Washington, D.C., and Boston), families earning $100,000 would be slightly better off — but only slightly. After accounting for expenses, they would still be $139 in the red. Housing has much to do with that. It would consume 43% of the household budget alone.

3. San Jose/Sunnyvale/Santa Clara, CA

It’s a good thing Silicon Valley gigs pay well. A $100,000-earning family in the San Jose/Sunnyvale/Santa Clara metro area would only just manage to make ends meet, according to our findings. They would spend 99% of their total income on basic expenses. Nearly half of their income would go toward housing (46%), more than households in any other metro area analyzed.

4. San Francisco/Oakland/Hayward, CA

Right next door to the no. 3 worst metro on our list, the San Francisco/Oakland/Hayward combo presents another budget-busting challenge for six-figure households. The area gets an edge because it has a slightly more affordable housing situation. A family earning $100,000 would use roughly 43% of their budget on housing. And when all’s said and paid for, families would use 96% of their earnings on basic expenses.

5. New York, NY/Newark/Jersey City, NJ

We land back on the East Coast for the no. 5 worst metro for six-figure households. New Yorkers and the bridge and tunnelers of Newark and Jersey City, N.J., may face exorbitant housing and child care expenses, but they luck out in one key area: transportation. The area ranks the third most affordable for transportation, likely due to the prevalence of public transit. A six-figure household would only use 13% of their budget to get around. That’s nearly half the rate spent on transit in nearby Lexington Park, Md. (23%). Still, cheaper transit options don’t quite make up for the fact that a family earning $100,000 in this area would still have to dedicate a total of 57% of their budget to housing and child care alone. At the end of the month, 96% of their earnings would be dust.

6. California/Lexington Park, MD

High earners in California/Lexington Park, Md., will spend a fair chunk of their earnings on transportation — 23% of their take-home pay. After housing, transportation is the most expensive line item in their budget. Still, they benefit from relatively low housing expenses compared to the other metros in the bottom 10, which gives households here a boost. Higher taxes also leave them with less take-home pay

7. Kahului/Wailuku/Lahaina, HI

Thanks to one of the highest income tax rates in the U.S., high-earning households in Hawaii start off with less take-home pay than their counterparts across the country. A married couple earning $100,000 and filing taxes jointly would get hit with an 8.25% state income tax rate.

Both higher housing costs and transportation expenses make this region in Hawaii, located on the island of Maui, one of the worst places for six-figure households. At the end of each month, they have just $292 left in the household budget. The majority of their take-home pay will go toward housing (38%) and transportation (18%).

8. Honolulu, HI

A family earning $100,000 in Honolulu would fare slightly better than their neighbors on Maui, thanks to lower transportation costs. At the end of each month, they have $302 left in the household budget, versus $292 for households in the Kahului-Wailuku-Lahaina area.

9. Boston-Cambridge-Newton, MA-NH

Relative to their take-home pay, Boston families earning $100,000 spend well over half their household budget on housing and child care — 36% and 17%, respectively.

10. Santa Cruz/Watsonville, CA

Santa Cruz-Watsonville, CA rounds out our rankings. A household earning $100,000 would scrape by at the end of the month with just $329 left.

The BEST Metros for Six-Figure Households: By the Numbers

1. Johnson City, TN

The Southeast is by far the best region to move to if you want to stretch your six-figure income, and Tennessee should be top of your list. Four out of the top 10 best places to earn six figures belong to Tennessee metros.

2. Morristown, TN

A six-figure family living in Morristown, TN would have just over $2,500 left in the bank after paying for essentials and a bit of entertainment. That’s plenty of cash to build up an emergency fund.

3. Cleveland, TN

Tennessee continues to dominate the list, with Cleveland, TN coming in third place among the most affordable places for six-figure households. Families spend just 63% of their post-tax monthly income on essentials, savings and entertainment.

4. Hattiesburg, MS

Hattiesburg, MS takes the no. 4 spot, where  a six-figure family can afford to cover essential expenses, plus savings and entertainment with just 64% of their post-tax income.

5. McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, TX

A family earning $100,000 per year in McAllen, TX would have more than enough to meet their basic needs and then some. Only 14% of their income is spent on transportation ($955 per month) and just 16% goes toward housing ($1,086 per month).

6. Jackson, TN

We’re back to the Volunteer state at No. 6 with Jackson, TN.

7. Chattanooga, TN-GA

Right on the border of Tennessee and Georgia, Chattanooga proves to be a great location of a family bringing in $100,000 per year. Relatively low housing, child care and transportation costs leave plenty of breathing room in the budget.

8. Lafayette-West Lafayette, IN

The midwest makes its first and only showing in the top 10 affordable places list with Lafayette, IN. Just under two-thirds (65%) of a family’s monthly post-tax income would be used on budget essentials like housing, food, child care and transportation.

9. Jackson, MS

We’re back to Mississippi at No. 9 with Jackson, MS making a strong showing among the most affordable places for a six-figure family.

10. Brownsville-Harlingen, TX

Texas rounds out the top 10 affordable places for $100,000 households, with the Brownsville-Harlingen area nabbing the last spot. Families would have over $2,300 left in the bank at month’s end based on our estimates.

A Tale of Two Cities

In the graphic below, see how different life is for a family earning $100,000 in Washington, D.C. vs. Johnson City, TN.

Regional Findings

Click a region to jump to the rankings:

West West West West West MidWest Northeast SouthWest SouthEast SouthEast

Methodology:

We based our findings on the projected disposable income for a family of three — two adults and one child age 4 years old. We assume the total household gross income is $100,000.

We estimated post-tax income for each metro area.

Housing

Based on metro-level estimates from U.S. Census Current Population Survey

Child care

Economic Policy Institute — State level child care costs in the U.S.

Food

Official USDA Food Plans: Cost of Food at Home at Four Levels, U.S. Average, April 2017

Based on a moderate plan for a family of three: One male (age 19 to 50 years), one female (age 19 to 50 years), and child (age 4 to 5 years). Adjustment factor of 5% added.

Transportation

Based on metro-level data compiled by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation

U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development “Location Affordability Portal”

Student debt payment

State Level Household Debt Statistics 2003-2016, Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

The Student Loan Debt Balance per Capita is distributed equally over 10 years with an interest rate of 4.66%.

Entertainment

We assumed all households would spend 5% of their income on entertainment, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditures Survey (CE)

Personal savings

We assumed all households would set aside 5% for personal savings, based on averages from the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, personal savings rate.

Data analysis by Priyanka Sarkar, Arpi Shah and Mandi Woodruff.

Mandi Woodruff
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Mandi Woodruff is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Mandi at mandi@magnifymoney.com

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16 States Offering Sales Tax Holidays in 2017

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The back-to-school season can be an exciting but expensive time.

Buying school supplies adds up, even before new clothes, backpacks, and shoes join the list. Needs such as a new laptop, textbooks, or graphing calculator can cause costs to escalate.

The good news is that for the last 20 years, some states have offered holidays on which they don’t collect state sales taxes on many items on your back-to-school shopping list.

Craig Shearman, vice president for government affairs public relations for the National Retail Federation, a retail trade federation, says consumers can save about 5% to 10% during sales-tax holidays. Actual savings for consumers depend on the state sales tax rate in their state.

Sales Tax Holidays 2017

This year, 16 of the 45 states that collect sales taxes are offering tax holidays, according to the Federation of Tax Administrators, an organization that provides research, training, and other resources to state-tax administrators. Most of these holidays revolve around school-related purchases, though some states also have other tax holidays throughout the year for things like disaster preparedness items, firearms, hunting supplies, or energy- and water-saving appliances.

Here’s a schedule of upcoming tax holidays by state:

How does a tax holiday work?

Sales-tax weekends are a set period of time in which the state doesn’t collect typical sales tax on certain items up to a certain dollar amount. Each state defines what will be exempt during the holiday, but common items for July and August holidays include clothing, shoes, school supplies, and personal computers.

Eight states holding tax holidays this year are doing so during the first weekend of August to help families buy back-to-school items. For example, Florida isn’t collecting sales tax on school supplies that are less than $15, clothing, footwear, and certain accessories that are less than $60, and personal computers and computer-related accessories less than $750.

Things to watch out for: Timing and spending caps

Just because a state offered a tax holiday in the past doesn’t mean its residents can expect to get one in the future. Georgia is not having tax holidays this year, after having two in 2016 that covered back-to-school supplies and Energy Star and WaterSense appliances. It’s the first time since 2012 Georgia will not have a tax holiday.

Previous sales-tax holidays in Georgia have helped mom Cheri Melone, 45, save on school supplies, lunchboxes, and backpacks for her sons, ages 11 and 3. Melone, who lives in Watkinsville, Ga., estimates she saved about $10 to $20 per child each year.

“It’s disappointing,” Melone says. “I know a lot of my friends that have big families, they wait for that weekend to go shopping.”

Massachusetts lawmakers are still determining whether the state will have a tax holiday this year. The state canceled its 2016 holiday after a Department of Revenue report found that the 2015 holiday caused it to miss out on $25.51 million in revenue.

In addition to double-checking if and when a state’s holiday is happening, shoppers will want to familiarize themselves with the holiday’s limits: The holidays only apply to certain items and often impose tax-free spending limits. And even though a state isn’t collecting sales tax during this period doesn’t mean that shoppers won’t see taxes added to their bill at checkout. Some states allow counties, cities, and districts to choose if they want to stop collecting their specific sales taxes during the holiday. In 2017, 49 of Missouri’s 114 counties will collect county sales taxes during the state’s back-to-school sales-tax holiday.

Beyond that, not all retailers may participate. Retailers in Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia are required to participate in the tax holidays. New Mexico does not require retailers to participate. Missouri lets retailers opt out if less than 2% of their merchandise would qualify for the tax exemption. Florida lets retailers opt out if less than 5% of their 2016 sales were from items that would be exempt during the 2017 back-to-school tax holiday.

Guides to the sales tax holiday in Connecticut, Louisiana, Maryland, and Mississippi don’t specify if retailers are required to participate.

What are the pros and cons of tax holidays?

Shearman says the events benefit retailers by bringing customers into the store and help consumers by saving them money.

“Because [consumers are] excited about the prospect of what amounts to a sale going on, they’ll be in that frame of mind, and they will buy other things that are there that are not tax exempt,” Sherman says. “So the boost in sales per items that are still being taxed very often offsets the tax revenue lost from the tax-free items.”

However, economists like Ron Alt from the Federation of Tax Administrators says he thinks it is a bad tax policy because states lose the revenue. Also, retailers may mark up prices for the holiday to make money off the hype of a tax-free weekend, says Alt, senior manager of economic and tax research.

A March 2017 study from economists at the Board of Governors at the Federal Reserve System found that tax holidays boosted retail sales throughout the whole month.

Shearman says that while 5% to 10% saved is “relatively small,” it can help families that are financially stretched.

Georgeanne Gonzalez, 32, an Athens, Ga., mom who buys school supplies for her two children and her niece, says the state’s tax-free weekends helped her out a lot in the past as the school supply lists grew.

“It made it a lot easier when having three children to buy school supplies for,” she says.

Jana Lynn French
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Jana Lynn French is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Jana Lynn here

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GOP Moves to Block Rule That Allows Consumers to Join Class Action Lawsuits

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A rule that would make it easier for consumers to join together and sue their banks might be shelved by congressional Republicans or other banking regulators before it takes effect.

Members of the Senate Banking Committee announced Thursday that they will take the unusual step of filing a Congressional Review Act Joint Resolution of Disapproval to stop a new rule announced earlier this month by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Rep. Jeb Hensarling (D-Texas) introduced a companion measure in the House of Representatives.

The CFPB rule, which was published in the Federal Register this week and would take effect in 60 days, bans financial firms from including language in standard form contracts that force consumers to waive their rights to join class action lawsuits.

The congressional challenge is one of three potential roadblocks opponents might throw up to overturn or stall the rule before it takes effect in two months.

So-called mandatory arbitration clauses have long been criticized by consumer groups, who say they make it easier for companies to mistreat consumers. But Senate Republicans, led by banking committee chairman Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), say the rule is “anti-business” and would lead to a flood of class action lawsuits that would harm the economy. They also say the CFPB overstepped its bounds in writing the rule.

“Congress, not King Richard Cordray, writes the laws,” said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), referring to the CFPB director. “This resolution is a good place for Congress to start reining in one of Washington’s most powerful bureaucracies.”

Congress’s financial reform bill of 2010, known as Dodd-Frank, directed the CFPB to study arbitration clauses and write a rule about them. The rule permits arbitration clauses for individual disputes, but prevents firms from requiring arbitration when consumers wish to band together in class action cases.

Consumer groups were quick to criticize congressional Republicans.

“Senator Crapo is doing the bidding of Wall Street by jumping to take away our day in court and repeal a common-sense rule years in the making,” said Lauren Saunders, associate director of the National Consumer Law Center. “None of these senators would want to look a Wells Fargo fraud victim in the eye and say, ‘you can’t have your day in court,’ yet they are helping Wells Fargo do just that.”

Meanwhile, the new rule also faces a challenge from the Financial Stability Oversight Council, made up of 10 banking regulators. The council can overturn a CFPB rule with a two-thirds vote if members believe it threatens the safety and soundness of the banking system. A letter from Acting Comptroller of the Currency Keith Noreika, a council member, to the CFPB on Monday asked the bureau for more data on the rule, and raised possible safety and soundness issues. Any council member can ask the Treasury secretary to stay a new rule within 10 days of publication. The council would then have 90 days to veto the rule via a vote. It would be the first such veto.

The CFPB rule also faces potential lawsuits from private parties.

How to be sure you’re protected by the new rule

Barring action by Congress, the CFPB rule is slated to take effect in late September 2017, with covered firms having an additional 6 months to comply, meaning most new contracts signed after that date can’t contain the class-action waiver. Prohibitions in current contracts will remain in effect.

Consumers who want to ensure they enjoy their new rights will have to close current accounts and open new ones after the effective date, the CFPB said.

Bob Sullivan
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Bob Sullivan is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Bob here

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Ultimate Guide to Maximizing Your 401(k)

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You’re probably familiar with the basics of a 401(k).

You know that it’s a retirement account and that it’s offered by your employer. You know that you can contribute a percentage of your salary and that you get tax breaks on those contributions. And you know that your employer may offer some type of matching contribution.

But beyond the basics, you may have some confusion about exactly how your 401(k) works and what you should be doing to maximize its benefits.

That’s what this guide is going to show you. We’ll tell you everything you need to know in order to maximize your 401(k) contributions.

The 4 Types of 401(k) Contributions You Need to Understand

When it comes to maximizing your 401(k), nothing you do will be more important than maximizing your contributions.

Because while most investment advice focuses on how to build the perfect portfolio, the truth is that your savings rate is much more important than the investments you choose. Especially when you’re just starting out, the simple act of saving more money is far and away the most effective way to accelerate your path toward financial independence.

There are four different ways to contribute to your 401(k), and understanding how each one works will allow you to combine them in the most efficient way possible, adding more money to your 401(k) and getting you that much closer to retirement.

1. Employee Contributions

Employee contributions are the only type of 401(k) contribution that you have full control over and are likely to be the biggest source of your 401(k) funds.

Employee contributions are the contributions that you personally make to your 401(k). They’re typically set up as a percentage of your salary and are deducted directly from your paycheck.

For example, let’s say that you are paid $3,000 every two weeks. If you decide to contribute 5% of your salary to your 401(k), then $150 will be taken out of each paycheck and deposited directly into your 401(k).

There are two different types of employee contributions you can make to your 401(k), each with a different set of tax benefits:

  1. Traditional contributions – Traditional contributions are tax-deductible in the year you make the contribution, grow tax-free while inside the 401(k), and are taxed as ordinary income when you withdraw the money in retirement. This is just like a traditional IRA. All 401(k)s allow you to make traditional contributions, and in most cases your contributions will default to traditional unless you choose otherwise.
  2. Roth contributions – Roth contributions are NOT tax-deductible in the year you make the contribution, but they grow tax-free while inside the 401(k) and the money is tax-free when you withdraw it in retirement. This is just like a Roth IRA. Not all 401(k)s allow you to make Roth contributions.

For more on whether you should make traditional or Roth contributions, you can refer to the following guide that’s specific to IRAs but largely applies to 401(k)s as well: Guide to Choosing the Right IRA: Traditional or Roth?

Maximum personal contributions

The IRS sets limits on how much money you can personally contribute to your 401(k) in a given year. For 2017, employee contributions are capped at $18,000, or $24,000 if you’re age 50 or older. In subsequent sections we’ll talk about how much you should be contributing in order to maximize these contributions.

2. Employer Matching Contributions

Many employers match your contributions up to a certain point, meaning that they contribute additional money to your 401(k) each time you make a contribution.

Employer matching contributions are only somewhat in your control. You can’t control whether your employer offers a match or the type of match they offer, but you can control how effectively you take advantage of the match they do offer.

Taking full advantage of your employer match is one of the most important parts of maximizing your 401(k). Skip ahead to this section to learn more on how to maximize your employer match.

3. Employer Non-Matching Contributions

Non-matching 401(k) contributions are contributions your employer makes to your 401(k) regardless of how much you contribute. Some companies offer this type of contribution in addition to, or in lieu of, regular matching contributions.

For example, your employer might contribute 5% of your salary to your 401(k) no matter what. Or they might make a variable contribution based on the company’s annual profits.

It’s important to note that these contributions are not within your control. Your employer either makes them or not, no matter what you do.

However, they can certainly affect how much you need to save for retirement, since more money from your employer may mean that you don’t personally have to save as much. Or they could be viewed as additional free savings that help you reach financial independence even sooner.

4. Non-Roth After-Tax Contributions

This last type of 401(k) contribution is rare. Many 401(k) plans don’t even allow this type of contribution, and even when they do, these contributions are rarely utilized.

The big catch is again that most 401(k) plans don’t allow these contributions. You can refer to your 401(k)’s summary plan description to see if it does.

And even if they are allowed, it typically only makes sense to take advantage of them if you’re already maxing out all of the other retirement accounts available to you.

But if you are maxing out those other accounts, you want to save more, and your 401(k) allows these contributions, they can be a powerful way to get even more out of your 401(k).

Here’s how they work:

Non-Roth after-tax 401(k) contributions are sort of a hybrid between Roth and traditional contributions. They are not tax-deductible, like Roth contributions, which means they are taxed first and then the remaining money is what is contributed to your account. The money grows tax-free while inside the 401(k), but the earnings are taxed as ordinary income when they are withdrawn. The contributions themselves are not taxed again.

A quick example to illustrate how the taxation works:

  • You make $10,000 of non-Roth after-tax contributions to your 401(k). You are not allowed to deduct these contributions for tax purposes.
  • Over the years, that $10,000 grows to $15,000 due to investment performance.
  • When you withdraw this money, the $10,000 that is due to contributions is not taxed. But the $5,000 that is due to investment returns — your earnings — is taxed as ordinary income.

This hybrid taxation means that on their own non-Roth after-tax 401(k) contributions are typically not as effective as either pure traditional or Roth contributions.

But they can be uniquely valuable in two big ways:

  1. You can make non-Roth after-tax contributions IN ADDITION to the $18,000 annual limit on regular employee contributions, giving you the opportunity to save even more money. They are only subject to the $54,000 annual limit that combines all employee and employer contributions made to a 401(k)..
  2. These contributions can be rolled over into a Roth IRA, when you leave your company or even while you’re still working there. And once the money is in a Roth IRA, the entire balance, including the earnings, grows completely tax-free. This contribution rollover process has been coined the Mega Backdoor Roth IRA, and it can be an effective way for high-income earners to stash a significant amount of tax-free money for retirement.

How to Maximize Your 401(k) Employer Match

With an understanding of the types of 401(k) contributions available to you, it’s time to start maximizing them. And the very first step is making sure you’re taking full advantage of your employer match.

Simply put, your 401(k) employer match is almost always the best investment return available to you. Because with every dollar you contribute up to the full match, you typically get an immediate 25%-100% return.

You won’t find that kind of deal almost anywhere else.

Here’s everything you need to know about understanding how your employer match works and how to take full advantage of it.

How a 401(k) Employer Match Works

While every 401(k) matching program is different, and you’ll learn how to find the details of your program below, a fairly typical employer match looks like this:

  • Your employer matches 100% of your contribution up to 3% of your salary.
  • Your employer also matches 50% of your contribution above 3% of your salary, up to 5% of your salary.
  • Your employer does not match contributions above 5% of your salary.

To see how this works with real numbers, let’s say that you make $3,000 per paycheck and that you contribute 10% of your salary to your 401(k). That means that $300 of your own money is deposited into your 401(k) as an employee contribution every time you receive a paycheck, and your employer matching contribution breaks down like this:

  1. The first 3% of your contribution, or $90 per paycheck, is matched at 100%, meaning that your employer contributes an additional $90 on top of your contribution.
  2. The next 2% of your contribution, or $60 per paycheck, is matched at 50%, meaning that your employer contributes an additional $30 on top of your contribution.
  3. The next 5% of your contribution is not matched.

All told, in this example, your employer contributes an extra 4% of your salary to your 401(k) as long as you contribute at least 5% of your salary. That’s an immediate 80% return on investment.

That’s why it’s so important to take full advantage of your 401(k). There’s really no other investment that provides such an easy, immediate, and high return.

How to Find Your 401(k) Employer Matching Program

On a personal level, taking full advantage of your 401(k) employer match is simply a matter of contributing at least the maximum percent of salary that your employer is willing to match. In the example above that would be 5%, but the actual amount varies from plan to plan.

So your job is to find out exactly how your 401(k) employer matching program works, and the good news is that it shouldn’t be too hard.

There are two main pieces of information you’re looking for:

  1. The maximum contribution percentage your employer will match – This is the amount of money you’d need to contribute in order to get the full match. For example, your employer might match your contribution up to 5% of your salary as in the example above, or it could be 3%, 12%, or any other percentage. Whatever this maximum percentage is, you’ll want to do what you can to contribute at least that amount so that you get the full match.
  2. The matching percentage – Your employer might match 100% of your contribution, or they may only match 50%, or 25%, or some combination of all of the above, and this has a big effect on the amount of money you actually receive. For example, two companies might both match up to 5% of your salary, but one might match 100% of that contribution, and one might only match 25% of it. Both are good deals, but one is four times as valuable.

With those two pieces of information in hand, you’ll know how much you need to contribute in order to get the full match and how much extra money you’ll be getting each time you make that contribution.

As for where to find this information, the best and most definitive source is your 401(k)’s summary plan description, which is a long document that details all the ins and outs of your plan. This is a great resource for all sorts of information about your 401(k), but you can specifically look for the word “match” to find the details on your employer matching program.

And if you have any trouble either finding the information or understanding it, you can reach out to your human resources representative for help. You should be able to find their contact information in the summary plan description.

Two Big Pitfalls to Avoid When Maximizing Your 401(k) Employer Match

Your 401(k) employer match is almost always a good deal, but there are two pitfalls to watch out for: vesting and front-loading contributions. Both of these could either diminish the value of your employer match or cause you to miss out on getting the full match.

Pitfall #1: Vesting

Clock time deadline

Employer contributions to your 401(k) plan, including matching contributions, may be subject to something called a vesting schedule.

A vesting schedule means that those employer contributions are not 100% yours right away. Instead, they become yours over time as you accumulate years of service with the company. If you leave before your employer contributions are fully vested, you will only get to take some of that money with you.

For example, a common vesting schedule gives you an additional 20% ownership over your 401(k) employer contributions for each year you stay with the company. If you leave before one year, you will not get to keep any of those employer contributions. If you leave after one year, you will get to keep 20% of the employer contributions and the earnings they’ve accumulated. After two years it will be 40%, and so on until you’ve earned the right to keep 100% of that money after five years with the company.

Three things to know about vesting:

  1. Employee contributions are never subject to a vesting schedule. Every dollar you contribute and every dollar that money earns is always 100% yours, no matter how long you stay with your company. Only employer contributions are subject to vesting schedules.
  2. Not all companies have a vesting schedule. In some cases you might be immediately 100% vested in all employer contributions.
  3. There is a single vesting clock for all employer contributions. In the example above, all employer contributions will be 100% vested once you’ve been with the company for five years, even those that were made just weeks earlier. You are not subject to a new vesting period with each individual employer contribution.

A vesting schedule can decrease the value of your employer match. A 100% match is great, but a 100% match that takes five years to get the full benefit of is not quite as great.

Still, in most cases it makes sense to take full advantage of your employer match, even if it’s subject to a vesting schedule. And the reasoning is simply that the worst-case scenario is that you leave your job before any of those employer contributions vest, in which case your 401(k) would have acted just like any other retirement account available to you, none of which offer any opportunity to get a matching contribution.

However, there are situations in which a vesting schedule might make it better to prioritize other retirement accounts before your 401(k). In some cases, your 401(k) employer contributions might be 0% vested until you’ve been with the company for three years, at which point they will become 100% vested. If you anticipate leaving your current employer within the next couple of years, and if your 401(k) is burdened with high costs, you may be better off prioritizing an IRA or other retirement account first.

You may also want to consider your vesting schedule before quitting or changing jobs. It certainly shouldn’t be the primary factor you consider, but if you’re close to having a significant portion of your 401(k) vest, it may be worth waiting just a little bit longer to make your move.

You can find all the details on your 401(k) vesting schedule in your summary plan description. And again you can reach out to your human resources representative if you have any questions.

Pitfall #2: Front-Loading Contributions

In most cases, it makes sense to put as much money into your savings and investments as soon as possible. The sooner it’s contributed, the more time it has to compound its returns and earn you even more money.

But the rules are different if you’re trying to max out your 401(k) employer match.

The reason is that most employers apply their maximum match on a per-paycheck basis. That is, if your employer only matches up to 5% of your salary, what they’re really saying is that they will only match up to 5% of each paycheck.

For a simple example, let’s say that you’re paid $18,000 twice per month. So over the course of an entire year, you make $432,000.

In theory, you could max out your annual allowed 401(k) contribution with your very first paycheck of the year. Simply contribute 100% of your salary for that one paycheck, and you’re done.

The problem is that you would only get the match on that one single paycheck. If your employer matches up to 5% of your salary, then they would match 5% of that $18,000 paycheck, or $900. The next 23 paychecks of the year wouldn’t get any match because you weren’t contributing anything. And since you were eligible to get a 5%, $900 matching contribution with each paycheck, that means you’d be missing out on $20,700.

Now, most people aren’t earning $18,000 per paycheck, so the stakes aren’t quite that high. But the principle remains the same.

In order to get the full benefit of your employer match, you need to set up your 401(k) contributions so that you’re contributing at least the full matching percentage every single paycheck. You may be able to front-load your contributions to a certain extent, but you want to make sure that you stay far enough below the annual $18,000 limit to get the full match with every paycheck.

Now, some companies will actually make an extra contribution at the end of the year to make up the difference if you contributed enough to get the full match but accidentally missed out on a few paychecks. You can find out if your company offers that benefit in your 401(k)’s summary plan description.

But in most cases you’ll need to spread your contributions out over the entire year in order to get the full benefit of your employer match.

When to Contribute More Than Is Needed for Your Employer Match

Maxing out your 401(k) employer match is a great start, but there’s almost always room to contribute more.

Using the example from above, the person with the $3,000 per-paycheck salary would max out his or her employer match with a 5% contribution. That’s $150 per paycheck. Assuming 26 paychecks per year, that individual would personally contribute $3,900 to his or her 401(k) over the course of a year with that 5% contribution.

And given that the maximum annual contribution for 2017 is $18,000 ($24,000 if you’re 50+), he or she would still be eligible to contribute an additional $14,100 per year. In fact, this individual would have to set his or her 401(k) contribution to just over 23% in order to make that full $18,000 annual contribution.

3 big questions to answer:

  1. Do you need to contribute more in order to reach your personal goals?
  2. Can you afford to contribute more right now?
  3. If the answer is yes to both #1 and #2, should you be making additional contributions to your 401(k) beyond the employer match, or should you be prioritizing other retirement accounts?

Questions #1 and #2 are beyond the scope of this guide, but you can get a sense of your required retirement savings here and here.

Question #3 is what we’ll address here. If you’ve already maxed out your employer match and you want to save more money for retirement, should you prioritize your 401(k) or other retirement accounts?

Let’s dive in.

What Other Retirement Accounts Are Available to You?

Your 401(k) is almost never the only retirement account available to you. Here are the other major options you might have.

IRA

An IRA is a retirement account that you set up on your own, outside of work. You can contribute up to $5,500 per year ($6,500 if you’re 50+), and just like with the 401(k) there are two different types:

  1. Traditional IRA – You get a tax deduction on your contributions, your money grows tax-free inside the account, and your withdrawals are taxed as ordinary income in retirement.
  2. Roth IRA – You do not get a tax deduction on your contributions, but your money grows tax-free and can be withdrawn tax-free in retirement.

You can read more about making the decision between using a Roth IRA or a traditional IRA here: Guide to Choosing the Right IRA: Traditional or Roth?

The big benefit of IRAs is that you have full control over the investment company you use, and therefore the investments you choose and the fees you pay. While some 401(k)s force you to choose between a small number of high-cost investments, IRAs give you a lot more freedom to choose better investments.

The only catch is that there are income limits that may prevent you from being allowed to contribute to an IRA or to deduct your contributions for tax purposes. If you earn more than those limits, an IRA may not be an option for you.

Health Savings Account

Health savings accounts, or HSAs, were designed to be used for medical expenses, but they can also function as a high-powered retirement account.

In fact, health savings accounts are the only investment accounts that offer a triple tax break:

  1. Your contributions are deductible.
  2. Your money grows tax-free inside the account.
  3. You can withdraw the money tax-free for qualified medical expenses.

On top of that, many HSAs allow you to invest the money, your balance rolls over year to year, and as long as you keep good records, you can actually reimburse yourself down the line for medical expenses that occurred years ago.

Put all that together with the fact that you will almost certainly have medical expenses in retirement, and HSAs are one of the most powerful retirement tools available to you.

The catch is that you have to be participating in a qualifying high-deductible health plan, which generally means a minimum annual deductible of $1,300 for individual coverage and $2,600 for family coverage.

If you’re eligible though, you can contribute up to $3,400 if you are the only individual covered by such a plan, or up to $6,750 if you have family coverage.

Backdoor Roth IRA

If you’re not eligible to contribute to an IRA directly, you might want to consider something called a Backdoor Roth IRA.

The Backdoor Roth IRA takes advantage of two rules that, when combined, can allow you to contribute to a Roth IRA even if you make too much for a regular contribution:

  1. You are always allowed to make non-deductible traditional IRA contributions, up to the annual $5,500 limit, no matter how much you make.
  2. You are also allowed to convert money from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA at any time, no matter how much you make.

When you put those together, high-earners could make non-deductible contributions to a traditional IRA, and shortly after convert that money to a Roth IRA. From that point forward the money will grow completely tax-free.

There are some potential pitfalls, and you can review all the details here. But if you are otherwise ineligible to make IRA contributions, this is a good option to have in your back pocket.

Taxable Investment Account

While dedicated retirement accounts offer the biggest tax breaks, there are plenty of tax-efficient ways to invest within a regular taxable investment account as well.

These accounts can be especially helpful for nearer term goals, since your money isn’t locked away until retirement age, or for money you’d like to invest after maxing out your dedicated retirement accounts.

How to Decide Between Additional 401(K) Contributions and Other Retirement Accounts

With those options in hand, how do you decide whether to make additional 401(k) contributions, beyond the amount needed to max out the employer match, or to contribute that money to other accounts?

There are a few big factors to consider:

  • Eligibility – If you’re not eligible to contribute to an IRA or HSA, a 401(k) might be your best option by default.
  • Costs – Cost is the single best predictor of future investment returns, with lower cost investments leading to higher returns. You’ll want to prioritize accounts that allow you to minimize the fees you pay.
  • Investment options – You should prioritize accounts that allow you to implement your preferred asset allocation, again with good, low-cost funds.
  • Convenience – All else being equal, having fewer accounts spread across fewer companies will make your life easier.

With those factors in mind, here’s a reasonable guide for making the decision:

  1. Max out your employer match before contributing to other accounts.
  2. If your 401(k) offers low fees and investments that fit your desired portfolio, you can keep things simple by prioritizing additional contributions there first. This allows you to work with one account, at least for a little while, instead of several.
  3. If your 401(k) is high-cost, or if you’ve already maxed out your 401(k), a health savings account may be the next best place to look. If you can pay for your medical expenses with other money, allowing this account to stay invested and grow for the long term, that triple tax break is hard to beat.
  4. An IRA is likely your next best option. You can review this guide for a full breakdown of the traditional versus Roth debate.
  5. If you’re not eligible for a direct IRA contribution, you should consider a Backdoor Roth IRA.
  6. If you maxed out your other retirement accounts because your 401(k) is high-cost, now is probably the time to go back. While there are some circumstances in which incredibly high fees might make a taxable investment account a better deal, in most cases the tax breaks offered by a 401(k) will outweigh any difference in cost.
  7. Once those retirement accounts are maxed out, you can invest additional money in a regular taxable investment account.

The Bottom Line: Maximize Your 401(k)

A 401(k) is a powerful tool if you know how to use it. The tax breaks make it easier to save more and earn more than in a regular investment account, and the potential for an employer match is unlike any opportunity offered by any other retirement account.

The key is in understanding your 401(k)’s specific opportunities and how to take maximum advantage of them. If you can do that, you may find yourself a lot closer to financial independence than you thought.

Matt Becker
Matt Becker |

Matt Becker is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Matt at matt@magnifymoney.com

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Average Household Credit Card Debt in America: 2017 Statistics

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Even as household income and employment rates are ticking up in the U.S., credit card balances are approaching all-time highs. What’s behind the growth of credit card spending among consumers? In a new report on credit card debt in America, MagnifyMoney analyzed credit debt trends in the U.S. to find out exactly how much credit debt consumers are really taking on and, crucially, how they are managing their growing reliance on plastic.

Key Findings:

  • While credit balances are increasing, the amount of debt that households are carrying from month to month is actually much lower than it was leading up to the 2008 financial crisis. As of December 2016, households with credit card debt owed an average of $7,703, down 27.2% compared to October 2008, when household credit card debt peaked at $10,588.
  • Credit card balances and credit card debt are not the same thing. The 73 million Americans who pay their bill in full each month have credit card balances reported to the major credit reporting bureaus.
  • Assessing financial health means focusing on credit card debt trends rather than credit card use trends.

Credit Card Debt in the U.S. by the Numbers

Credit Card Use

Number of Americans who use credit cards: 203 million1

Average number of credit cards per consumer: 2.22

Number of Americans who carry credit card debt: 127 million3

Credit Card Debt

The following figures only include the credit card balances of those who carry credit card debt from month to month.

Total credit card debt in the U.S.: $504 billion4

Average credit card debt per person: $3,9715

Average credit card debt per household: $7,7036

Credit Card Balances

The following figures include the credit card statement balances of all credit card users, including those who pay their bill in full each month.

Total credit card balances: $764 billion as of January 2017, an increase of 7.3% from the previous year.7

Average balance per person: $5,5518

Who Pays Off Their Credit Card Bills?

42% of households pay off their credit card bills in full each month

31% of households carry a balance all year

27% of households sometimes carry a balance10

Understanding Household Credit Card Balances vs. Household Debt

At first glance, it may seem that Americans are taking on near record levels of credit debt. Forty-two percent of American households11 carry credit card debt from month to month, and, if you look at the total credit card balances among U.S. households, the figure appears astronomical — $764 billion. But that figure includes households that are paying their credit debt in full each month as well as those that are carrying a balance from month to month.

While credit balances are increasing, the amount of debt that households are carrying from month to month is actually much lower than it was leading up to the 2008 financial crisis. The total of credit card balances for households that actually carry debt from month to month is $504 billion.

As of the first quarter of 2017, households with credit card debt owed an average of $7,703.3 That is a decrease of 27.2% compared to October 2008, when household credit card debt peaked at $10,588.12b

And as household incomes have risen in recent years, this has helped to lower the ratio of credit card debt to income. Today, indebted households with average debt and median household incomes have a credit card debt to income ratio of 14.9%.13 Back in 2008, the ratio was 19.1%.

Credit Card Debt per Person

Once we adjust for these effects, we see that an estimated 127 million Americans carry $503 billion of credit card debt from month to month. Back in 2008, 7 million fewer Americans carried debt, but total credit card debt in late 2008 hovered around $631 billion.16 That means people with credit card debt in 2008 had more debt than people with credit card debt today.

Average credit card debt among those who carry a balance today is $3,970 per person2 or $7,703 per household.3 Back in 2008, credit card debtors owed an average of 28.6% more than they do today. In late 2008, the 115 million17 Americans with credit card debt owed an average of $5,567 per person12a or $10,689 per household.12b

Delinquency Rates

Credit card debt becomes delinquent when a bank reports a missed payment to the major credit reporting bureaus. Banks typically don’t report a missed payment until a person is at least 30 days late in paying.

In the second quarter of 2009, delinquency rates were 6.77%, nearly three times higher than they are today. Today, credit card delinquency rates among U.S. households are down to 2.34%.14

Credit card debt is well below recession levels, but balances continue inching upward. In the last year, overall credit card balances rose 7.3% to $764 billion.

Our Method of Calculating Household Credit Card Debt

Credit card debt doesn’t appear on the precipice of disaster, but the recent growth in balances is cause for some concern. Still, our estimates for household credit card debt remain modest.

In fact, MagnifyMoney’s estimates of household credit card debt is two-thirds that of other leading financial journals. Why are our estimates comparatively low?

A common estimate of household credit card debt is:

This method overstates credit card debt. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York/Equifax Consumer Credit Panel (CCP) does not release a figure called credit card indebtedness. Instead, they release a figure on national credit card balances. Representatives of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank both confirmed that the CCP includes the statement balances of people who go on to pay their bill in full each month.

To find a better estimate of credit card debt, we found methods to exclude the statement balances of full paying households from our credit card debt estimates. Statement balances are the balances owed to a credit card company at the end of a billing cycle. Even though full payers pay off their statement balance each month, their balances are included in the CCP’s figures on credit card balances.

To exclude full payer balances, we turned to academic research outside of the Federal Reserve Banks. The paper, Minimum Payments and Debt Paydown in Consumer Credit Cards, by Benjamin J. Keys and Jialan Wang, found full payers had mean statement balances of $3,412. We used this figure, multiplied by the estimated number of full payers to find the statement balances of full payers.

Our credit card debt estimate is:3

Credit Card Debt: Do We Know What We Owe?

Academic papers, consumer finance surveys, and the CCP each use different methods to measure average credit card debt among credit card revolvers. Since methodologies vary, credit card debt statistics vary based on the source consulted.

MagnifyMoney surveyed these sources to present a range of credit card debt statistics.

Are We Paying Down Credit Card Debt?

A Pew Research Center study25 showed that Americans have an uneasy relationship with credit card debt. More than two-thirds (68%) of Americans believe that loans and credit card debt expanded their opportunities. And 85% believe that Americans use debt to live beyond their means.

Academic research shows the conflicting attitude is justified. Some credit card users aggressively pay off debt. Others pay off their bill in full each month.

However, a substantial minority (44%)26 of revolvers pay within $50 of their minimum payment. Minimum payers are at a high risk of carrying unsustainable credit card balances with high interest.

In fact, 14% of consumers have credit card balances above $10,000.27 At current rates, consumers with balances of $10,000 will spend more than $1,386 per year on interest charges alone.28

Minimum Payments and Debt Paydown in Consumer Credit Cards29

Even an average revolver will spend between $54530 and $55631 on credit card interest each year.

Credit Debt Burden by Income

Those with the highest credit card debts aren’t necessarily the most financially insecure. According to the Survey of Consumer Finances, the top 10% of income earners who carried credit card debt had nearly twice as much debt as average.

However, people with lower incomes have more burdensome credit card debt loads. Consumers in the lowest earning quintile had an average credit card debt of $3,000. However, their debt-to-income ratio was 21.7%. On the high end, earners in the top decile had an average of $11,200 in credit card debt. But debt-to-income ratio was just 4.9%.

Although high-income earners have more manageable credit card debt loads on average, they aren’t taking steps to pay off the debt faster than lower income debt carriers. In fact, high-income earners are as likely to pay the minimum as those with below average incomes.32 If an economic recession leads to job losses at all wage levels, we could see high levels of credit card debt in default.

Generational Differences in Credit Card Use

  • Boomer consumers carry an average credit card balance of $6,889.
  • That is 24.1% higher than the national average consumer credit card balance.34
  • Millennial consumers carry an average credit card balance of $3,542.
  • That is 36.1% lower than the median consumer credit card balance.35

With average credit card balances of $6,889, baby boomers have the highest average credit card balance of any generation. Generation X follows close behind with average balances of $6,866.

At the other end of the spectrum, millennials, who are often characterized as frivolous spenders who are too quick to take on debt, have the lowest credit card balances. Their median balance clocks in at $3,542, 36.1% less than the national median.

Better Consumer Behavior Driving Bank Profitability

You may think that lower balances spell bad news for banks, but that isn’t the case. Credit card lending is more profitable than ever thanks to steadily declining credit card delinquency. Credit card delinquency is near an all-time low 2.34%.14

Despite better borrowing behavior, banks have held interest on credit cards steady between 13% and 14%37 since 2010. Today, interest rates on credit accounts (assessed interest) is 13.86%. This means bank profits on credit cards are at all-time highs. In 2015, banks earned over $102 billion dollars from credit card interest and fees.38 This is 15% more than banks earned in 2010.

How Does Your State Compare?

Using data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Consumer Credit Panel and Equifax, you can compare median credit card balances and credit card delinquency. You can even see how each generation in your state compares to the national median.

Footnotes:

  1. Source: Survey of Consumer Expectations, © 2013-2015 Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY). “The SCE data are available without charge at www.newyorkfed.org and may be used subject to license terms posted there. FRBNY disclaims any responsibility or legal liability for this analysis and interpretation of Survey of Consumer Expectations data.”The June 2016 Survey of Consumer Expectations shows 76.1% of people with credit reports had balances on credit cards. The May 2017 Report on Household Debt and Credit showed 267 million adults with credit reports. For a total of 203 million credit card users.
  2. May 2017 Report on Household Debt and Credit, Page 4, Q1 2017, 453 million credit card accounts. 453 million credit card accounts / 203 million credit card users1 = 2.2 credit cards per person.
  3. The 2015 Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households reports 58% of credit card users carried a balance in 2015. 203 million1 * 58% = 118 million people with credit card debt.Minimum Payments and Debt Paydown in Consumer Credit Cards by Benjamin J. Keys and Jialan Wang shows that 67% of credit card users were not “full payers.” This results in a high estimate of 136 million people with credit card debt.Average estimate is 127 million with credit card debt.
  4. Using data from the 2015 Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households, 203 million credit card users * (58% not full payers) * $4,011 per individual5 = $472 billion in credit card debt.Using data from Minimum Payments and Debt Paydown in Consumer Credit Cards by Benjamin J. Keys and Jialan Wang, we calculate 203 million credit card users * (67% not full payers) * $3,930 per individual5 = $535 billion in credit card debt.Average estimated total credit card debt is $504 billion.
  5. The May 2017 Report on Household Debt and Credit shows $764 billion in outstanding credit card debt. Table A-1 in Minimum Payments and Debt Paydown in Consumer Credit Cards by Benjamin J. Keys and Jialan Wang shows an average balance of $3,412 for “full payers.” Using their estimate of 33% full payers, we calculate:[$764 billion – ($3,412 (full payer balance) * 33% full payer * 203 million credit card users1)] / (203 million credit card users * (100% – 33% not full payers)) = $3,930Using their estimate of 42% full payers, from the 2015 Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households and the $3,412 full payer balance from Table A-1 in Minimum Payments and Debt Paydown in Consumer Credit Cards by Benjamin J. Keys and Jialan Wang, we calculate:[$764 billion – ($3,412 (full payer balance) * 42% full payer * 203 million credit card users1)] / (203 million credit card users * (100% – 42% not full payers)) = $4,011Average estimated credit card debt per person is $3,971.
  6. Average per person credit card is $3,9715 and the average household contains 1.94 adults over the age of 18. $3,971 * 1.94 = $7,703.
  7. May 2017 Report on Household Debt and Credit, Compare Q1 2016 to Q1 2017, outstanding credit card debt (Page 10).
  8. May 2017 Report on Household Debt and Credit, Page 3, Q1 2017, credit card debt $764 billion / 203 million1 = $3,759.
  9. 2016 State of Credit Report” National 2016 Average Balances on Credit Cards, Experian,Accessed May 24, 2017. National Balance on Bankcards- average of $5,551.
  10. Page 30, 2015 Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households.
  11. 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances reports 37.1% of U.S. households carry credit card debt. There are 125.82 million U.S. households.Meta Brown, Andrew Haughwout, Donghoon Lee, and Wilbert van der Klaauw reported that 46.1% of U.S. households carried a balance the month prior to the Survey of Consumer Finances.Between 48 million14 and 58 million15 households carry credit card debt. Using the average of the two estimates, we believe 53 million households out of 125.82 million households carry credit card debt.
  12. a. CCP data shows 76.6% of people with credit reports had balances on credit cards in September 2008. The May 2017 Report on Household Debt and Credit showed 240 million adults with credit reports in Q3 2008. For a total of 183 million credit card users.The May 2017 Report on Household Debt and Credit shows $866 billion in outstanding credit card debt in Q3 2008. Table A-1 in Minimum Payments and Debt Paydown in Consumer Credit Cards by Benjamin J. Keys and Jialan Wang shows an average balance of $3,412 for “full payers.” Using their estimate of 33% full payers, we calculate:[$866 billion – ($3,412 (full payer balance) * 33% full payer * 183 million credit card users)] / (183 million credit card users * (100% – 33% not full payers)) = $5,365U.S. Census Bureau, Survey of Income and Program Participation, 2008 Panel, Wave 4shows 44.5% of all households with a credit report have credit card debt. Using this along with the $3,412 full payer balance from Table A-1 in Minimum Payments and Debt Paydown in Consumer Credit Cards by Benjamin J. Keys and Jialan Wang, we calculate:[$866 billion – ($3,412 (full payer balance) * (100% – 44.5%) full payer * 240 million people with credit reports)] / (240 million people with credit reports * (44.5% not full payers)) = $5,769Average estimated credit card debt per person is $5,567.b. Average per person credit card is $5,56712 and in 2008, the average household contained 1.92 adults over the age of 18. $5,567 * 1.92 = $10,689.
  13. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Real Median Household Income in the United States [MEHOINUSA672N], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/MEHOINUSA672N, March 17, 2017.
  14. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (US), Delinquency Rate on Credit Card Loans, All Commercial Banks [DRCCLACBS], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/DRCCLACBS, March 16, 2017.
  15. Statement balances are the balances owed to a credit card company at the end of a billing cycle. Full payers will pay off the entirety of their statement balance each month. Finding an estimate of full payers’ statement balances was not an easy task. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York does not provide estimates of full payers compared to people who carry a balance.In order to get our estimates, we turned to academic research outside of the Federal Reserve Banks. In the paper, Minimum Payments and Debt Paydown in Consumer Credit Cards by Benjamin J. Keys and Jialan Wang, we found robust estimates of the statement balances of “full payers.” According to their analysis (see Table 1-A), full payers had mean statement balances of $3,412 (when summarized across all credit cards) before they went on to pay off the debt.We multiplied $3,412 by the estimated number of full payers to get the estimated balances of full payers.
  16. CCP data shows 76.6% of people with credit reports had balances on credit cards in September 2008. The May 2017 Report on Household Debt and Credit shows 240 million adults with credit reports in Q3 2008. For a total of 183 million credit card users.The May 2017 Report on Household Debt and Credit shows $866 billion in outstanding credit card debt in Q3 2008. Table A-1 in Minimum Payments and Debt Paydown in Consumer Credit Cards by Benjamin J. Keys and Jialan Wang shows an average balance of $3,412 for “full payers.” Using their estimate of 33% full payers, we calculate:$866 billion – ($3,412 (full payer balance) * 33% full payer * 183 million credit card users) =$659 billionU.S. Census Bureau, Survey of Income and Program Participation, 2008 Panel, Wave 4shows 44.5% of all households with a credit report have credit card debt. Using this along with the $3,412 full payer balance from Table A-1 in Minimum Payments and Debt Paydown in Consumer Credit Cards by Benjamin J. Keys and Jialan Wang, we calculate:$866 billion – ($3,412 (full payer balance) * (100% – 44.5%) full payer * 240 million people with credit reports) = $587 billionEstimated credit card debt is $623 billion.
  17. Source: Survey of Consumer Expectations, © 2013-2015 Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY). “The SCE data are available without charge at www.newyorkfed.org and may be used subject to license terms posted there. FRBNY disclaims any responsibility or legal liability for this analysis and interpretation of Survey of Consumer Expectations data.”The June 2016 Survey of Consumer Expectations Shows 76.1% of the adult population uses credit cards. The May 2017 Report on Household Debt and Credit shows 267 million adults with credit reports. For a total of 203 million credit card users. Page 30, 2015 Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households shows that 58% of households with credit cards sometimes or always carry a balance.203 million * 58% = 118 million people with credit card debt
  18. Source: Survey of Consumer Expectations, © 2013-2015 Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY). “The SCE data are available without charge at www.newyorkfed.org and may be used subject to license terms posted there. FRBNY disclaims any responsibility or legal liability for this analysis and interpretation of Survey of Consumer Expectations data.”The June 2016 Survey of Consumer Expectations Shows 76.1% of the adult population uses credit cards. The May 2017 Report on Household Debt and Credit shows 267 million adults with credit reports. For a total of 203 million credit card users. Minimum Payments and Debt Paydown in Consumer Credit Cards by Benjamin J. Keys and Jialan Wang shows that 67% of credit card users were not “full payers.”203 million * 67% = 136 million people with credit card debt
  19. The 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances reports 37.1% of U.S. households carry credit card debt. There are 125.82 million U.S. households.
  20. Meta Brown, Andrew Haughwout, Donghoon Lee, and Wilbert van der Klaauw reported that 46.1% of U.S. households carried a balance the month prior to the Survey of Consumer Finances.
  21. The 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances reports a median credit card debt of $2,300 per household with credit card debt.
  22. Meta Brown, Andrew Haughwout, Donghoon Lee, and Wilbert van der Klaauw used CCP data and determined a more realistic median credit card debt of $3,500 per household. Two-person households systematically underreported their debt.
  23. The 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances reports a median credit card debt of $5,700 per household with credit card debt.
  24. Meta Brown, Andrew Haughwout, Donghoon Lee, and Wilbert van der Klaauw used CCP data and determined a more realistic average credit card debt of $9,600 per household.
  25. The Complex Story of American Debt, Page 9.
  26. Table 1 in Minimum Payments and Debt Paydown in Consumer Credit Cards.
  27. Recent Developments in Consumer Credit Card Borrowing.
  28. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (US), Commercial Bank Interest Rate on Credit Card Plans, Accounts Assessed Interest [TERMCBCCINTNS], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/TERMCBCCINTNS, June 6, 2017.February 2017 interest rate on accounts assessed interest 13.86%: $10,000 * 13.86% = $1,386.
  29. Table 1 in Minimum Payments and Debt Paydown in Consumer Credit Cards.
  30. $3,9312 * 13.86%28 = $545
  31. $4,0112 * 13.86%28 = $556
  32. Minimum Payments and Debt Paydown in Consumer Credit Cards.
  33. 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances.
  34. 2016 State of Credit Report” National 2016 Average Balances on Credit Cards, Experian,Accessed May 24, 2017. Average credit card balance for baby boomers is $6,889 compared to a national average of $5,551.
  35. 2016 State of Credit Report” National 2016 Average Balances on Credit Cards, Experian,Accessed May 24, 2017. Average credit card balance for millennials is $3,542 compared to a national average of $5,551.
  36. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (US), Commercial Bank Interest Rate on Credit Card Plans, Accounts Assessed Interest [TERMCBCCINTNS], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/TERMCBCCINTNS, June 6, 2017.
  37. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Sources of Revenue: Credit Card Income from Consumers for Credit Intermediation and Related Activities, All Establishments, Employer Firms [REVCICEF522ALLEST], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/REVCICEF522ALLEST, March 17, 2017.
  38. CCP data shows 76.6% of people with credit reports had balances on credit cards in September 2008. The May 2017 Report on Household Debt and Credit shows 240 million adults with credit reports in Q3 2008. For a total of 183 million credit card users.The May 2017 Report on Household Debt and Credit, Page 3, Q3 2008, credit card debt $886 billion / 183 million = $4,720
  39. State Level Household Debt Statistics 1999-2016, Federal Reserve Bank of New York, May, 2017. All average credit card debt balances are calculated using the following formula:(Total Credit Card Balancea – Balance of Population Not Carrying Debtb) / Population Carrying Credit Card Debtc
    1. Total Credit Card Balance = (Average Credit Card Debt Per Capita * Population)
    2. Balance of Population Not Carrying Debt = Average Credit Card Debt Per Capita * Population * % of Population Using a Credit Card
    3. Population * % of Population Using a Credit Card * (1 – .375)
  40. State Level Household Debt Statistics 1999-2016, Federal Reserve Bank of New York, May, 2017.
  41. Data from Consumer Credit Explorer.
Hannah Rounds
Hannah Rounds |

Hannah Rounds is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Hannah at hannah@magnifymoney.com

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U.S. Mortgage Market Statistics: 2017

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Homeownership rates in America are at all-time lows. The housing crisis of 2006-2009 made banks skittish to issue new mortgages. Despite programs designed to lower down payment requirements, mortgage originations haven’t recovered to pre-crisis levels, and many Americans cannot afford to buy homes.

Will a new generation of Americans have access to home financing that drove the wealth of previous generations? We’ve gathered the latest data on mortgage debt statistics to explain who gets home financing, how mortgages are structured, and how Americans are managing our debt.

Summary:

  • Total Mortgage Debt: $9.8 trillion1
  • Average Mortgage Balance: $137,0002
  • Average New Mortgage Balance: $244,0003
  • % Homeowners (Owner-Occupied Homes): 63.4%4
  • % Homeowners with a Mortgage: 65%5
  • Median Credit Score for a New Mortgage: 7646
  • Average Down Payment Required: $12,8297
  • Mortgages Originated in 2016: $2.065 trillion8
  • % of Mortgages Originated by Banks: 43.9%9
  • % of Mortgages Originated by Credit Unions: 9%9
  • % of Mortgages Originated by Non-Depository Lenders: 47.1%9

Key Insights:

  • The median borrower in America puts 5% down on their home purchase. This leads to a median loan-to-value ratio of 95%. A decade ago, the median borrower put down 20%.10
  • Credit score requirements make mortgages tougher than ever to get. The median mortgage borrower had a credit score of 764.6
  • 1.67% of all mortgages are in delinquency. In 2010, mortgage delinquency reached as high as 8.89%.11

Home Ownership and Equity Levels

In the first quarter of 2017, real estate values in the United States recovered to their pre-recession levels. The total value of real estate owned by individuals in the United States is $23 trillion dollars, and total mortgages clock in at $9.8 trillion dollars. This means that Americans have $13.7 trillion in homeowners equity.12 This is the highest value of home equity Americans have ever seen.

However, real estate wealth is becoming increasingly concentrated as overall homeownership rates fall. In 2004, 69% of all Americans owned homes. Today, that number is down to 63.4%.4 While home affordability remains a question for many Americans, the downward trend in homeownership corresponds to banks tightening credit standards for new mortgages.

New Mortgage Originations

Mortgage origination levels show signs of recovery from their housing crisis lows. In 2008, financial institutions issued just $1.4 trillion dollars of new mortgages. In 2016, new first lien mortgages topped $2 trillion for the first time since the end of the housing crisis. Despite the growth in the mortgage market, mortgage originations are still 25% lower than their pre-recession average.8

As recently as 2010, three banks (Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and Chase) originated 56% of all mortgages.13 In 2016, all banks put together originate just 44% of all loans.9

In a growing trend toward “non-bank” lending, both credit unions and non-depository lenders cut into banks’ share of the mortgage market. In 2016, credit unions issued 9% of all mortgages. Additionally, 47% of all mortgages in 2016 came from non-depository lending institutions like Quicken Loans and PennyMac. Behind Wells Fargo ($249 billion) and Chase ($117 billion), Quicken ($96 billion) was the third largest issuer of mortgages in 2016. In the fourth quarter of 2016, PennyMac issued $22 billion in loans and was the fourth largest lender overall.9

Government vs. Private Securitization

Banks tend to be more willing to lend mortgages to consumers if a third party will buy the mortgage in the secondary market. This is a process called loan securitization. Consumers can’t directly influence who buys their mortgage. Nonetheless, mortgage securitization influences who gets mortgages and their rates. Over the last five years government securitization enterprises, FHA and VA loans, and portfolio loan securitization have risen. However, today private loan securitization is almost extinct.

Government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) have traditionally played an important role in ensuring that banks will issue new mortgages. In 2016, 46% of all loans issued were securitized by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. However, in absolute terms, Fannie and Freddie purchased 20% fewer loans than they did in the years leading up to 2006.8

In 2016, a tiny fraction (0.4%) of all loans were purchased by private securitization companies.8 Prior to 2007, private securitization companies held $1.6 trillion in subprime and Alt-A (near prime) mortgages. In 2005 alone, private securitization companies purchased $1.1 trillion worth of mortgages. Today private securitization companies hold just $500 billion in total assets, including $440 billion in subprime and Alt-A loans.14

As private securitization firms exited the mortgage landscape, programs from the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) have filled in some of the gap. The FHA and VA are designed to help borrowers get loans despite having smaller down payments or lower incomes. FHA and VA loans accounted for 23% of all loans issued in 2016. These loan programs are the only mortgages that grew in absolute terms from the pre-mortgage crisis. Prior to 2006, FHA and VA loans only accounted for $155 billion in loans per year. In 2016, FHA and VA loans accounted for $470 billion in loans issued.8

Portfolio loans, mortgages held by banks, accounted for $639 billion in new mortgages in 2016. Despite tripling in volume from their 2009 low, portfolio loans remain down 24% from their pre-crisis average.8

Mortgage Credit Characteristics

Since banks are issuing 21% fewer mortgages compared to pre-crisis averages, borrowers need higher incomes and better credit to get a mortgage.

The median FICO score for an originated mortgage rose from 707 in late 2006 to 764 today. The scores on the bottom decile of mortgage borrowers rose even more dramatically from 578 to 657.6

In 2016, 23% of all first lien mortgages were financed through FHA or VA programs. First-time FHA borrowers had an average credit score of 677. This puts the average first-time FHA borrower in the bottom quartile of all mortgage borrowers.8

Prior to 2009, an average of 20% of all volumes originated went to people with subprime credit scores (<660). In the first quarter of 2017, just 8% of all mortgages were issued to borrowers with subprime credit scores. Mortgages for people with excellent credit (scores above 760) more than doubled. Between 2003 and 2008 just 27% of all mortgages went to people with excellent credit. In the first quarter of 2017, 61% of all mortgages went to people with excellent credit.6

Banks have also tightened lending standards related to maximum debt-to-income ratios for their mortgages. In 2007, conventional mortgages had an average debt-to-income ratio of 38.6%; today the average ratio is 34.3%.15 The lower debt-to-income ratio is in line with pre-crisis levels.

LTV and Delinquency Trends

Banks continue to screen customers on the basis of credit score and income, but customers who take on mortgages are taking on bigger mortgages than ever before. Today a new mortgage has an average unpaid balance of $244,000, according to data from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.3

The primary drivers behind larger loans are higher home prices, but lower down payments also play a role. Prior to the housing crisis, more than half of all borrowers put down at least 20%. The average loan-to-value ratio at loan origination was 82%.10

Today, half of all borrowers put down 5% or less. A quarter of all borrowers have just 3.5% equity at the time of mortgage origination. As a result, the average loan-to-value ratio at origination has climbed to 88%.10

Despite a growing trend toward smaller down payments, growing home prices mean that overall loan-to-value ratios in the broader market show healthy trends. Today, the average loan-to-value ratio across all homes in the United States is an estimated 48%. The average LTV on mortgaged homes is 73%.16

This is substantially higher than the pre-recession LTV ratio of approximately 60%. However, homeowners saw very healthy improvements in loan-to-value ratios of 94% in early 2011. Between 2009 and 2011 more than a quarter of all mortgaged homes had negative equity. Today, just 6.2% of homes have negative equity.17

Although the current LTV on mortgaged homes remains above historical averages, Americans continue to manage mortgage debt well. Current homeowners have mortgage payments that make up an average of just 16.5% of their annual household income.18

After falling for 20 straight quarters, mortgage delinquency rates reached an eight-year low (1.57%) in the fourth quarter of 2016. Delinquency rates ticked up to 1.67% for the first time in Q1 2017, but remain substantially below the 2010 high of 8.89% delinquency.11

Despite the general progress, delinquency rates are still six basis points higher than their 2003-2006 average of 1.07%. It remains to be seen if delinquency rates will return to their pre-crisis lows, or if the housing market is entering a new normal.

Sources:

  1. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.), Households and Nonprofit Organizations; Home Mortgages; Liability, Level [HHMSDODNS], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/HHMSDODNS, June 22, 2017.
  2. Survey of Consumer Expectations Housing Survey – 2017,” Credit Quality and Inclusion, from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Accessed June 22, 2017.
  3. Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, “Average Loan Amount, 1-4 family dwelling, 2015.” Accessed June 22, 2017.
  4. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Homeownership Rate for the United States [USHOWN], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/USHOWN, June 22, 2017. (Calculated as percent of all housing units occupied by an owner occupant.)
  5. “U.S. Census Bureau, 2011-2015 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates,” Mortgage Status, Owner-Occupied Housing Units. Accessed June 22, 2017.
  6. Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit May 2017.” Credit Score at Origination: Mortgages, from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and Equifax Consumer Credit Panel. Accessed June 22, 2017.
  7. Calculated metric:
    1. Down Payment Value = Home Price* Average Down Payment Amount (Average Unpaid Balance on a New Mortgageb / Median LTV on a New Loanc) * (1 – Median LTV on a New Loanc)
    2. Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, “Average Loan Amount, 1-4 family dwelling, 2015.” Accessed June 22, 2017. Gives an average unpaid principal balance on a new loan = $244K.
    3. Housing Finance at a Glance: A Monthly Chartbook, May 2017.” Combined LTV at Origination from the Urban Institute, Urban Institute, calculated from: Corelogic, eMBS, HMDA, SIFMA, and Urban Institute. Data provided by Urban Institute Housing Finance Policy Center Staff.
  8. Housing Finance at a Glance: A Monthly Chartbook, May 2017.” First Lien Origination Volume from the Urban Institute. Source: Inside Mortgage Finance and the Urban Institute. Data provided by Urban Institute Housing Finance Policy Center Staff.
  9. Mortgage Daily. 2017. “Mortgage Daily 2016 Biggest Lender Ranking” [Press Release] Retrieved from https://globenewswire.com/news-release/2017/04/03/953457/0/en/Mortgage-Daily-2016-Biggest-Lender-Ranking.html.
  10. Housing Finance at a Glance: A Monthly Chartbook, May 2017.” Combined LTV at Origination from the Urban Institute, Urban Institute, calculated from: Corelogic, eMBS, HMDA, SIFMA, and Urban Institute. Data provided by Urban Institute Housing Finance Policy Center Staff.
  11. Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit May 2017.” Mortgage Delinquency Rates, from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and Equifax Consumer Credit Panel. Accessed June 22, 2017.
  12. Calculated metric: Value of U.S. Real Estatea – Mortgage Debt Held by Individualsb
    1. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.), Households; Owner-Occupied Real Estate including Vacant Land and Mobile Homes at Market Value [HOOREVLMHMV], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/HOOREVLMHMV, June 22, 2017.
    2. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.), Households and Nonprofit Organizations; Home Mortgages; Liability, Level [HHMSDODNS], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/HHMSDODNS, June 22, 2017.
  13. Mortgage Daily, 2017. “3 Biggest Lenders Close over Half of U.S. Mortgages” [Press Release]. Retrieved from http://www.mortgagedaily.com/PressRelease021511.asp?spcode=chronicle.
  14. Housing Finance at a Glance: A Monthly Chartbook, May 2017” from the Urban Institute Private Label Securities by Product Type, Urban Institute, calculated from: Corelogic and the Urban Institute. Data provided by Urban Institute Housing Finance Policy Center Staff.
  15. Fannie Mae Statistical Summary Tables: April 2017” from Fannie Mae. Accessed June 22, 2017; and “Single Family Loan-Level Dataset Summary Statistics” from Freddie Mac. Accessed June 22, 2017. Combined debt-to-income ratios weighted using original unpaid balance from both datasets.
  16. Calculated metrics:
    1. All Houses LTV = Value of All Mortgagesc / Value of All U.S. Homesd
    2. Mortgages Houses LTV = Value of All Mortgagesc / (Value of All Homesd – Value of Homes with No Mortgagee)
    3. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.), Households; Owner-Occupied Real Estate including Vacant Land and Mobile Homes at Market Value [HOOREVLMHMV], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/HOOREVLMHMV, June 22, 2017.
    4. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.), Households and Nonprofit Organizations; Home Mortgages; Liability, Level [HHMSDODNS], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/HHMSDODNS, June 22, 2017.
    5. U.S. Census Bureau, 2011-2015 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, Aggregate Value (Dollars) by Mortgage Status, June 22, 2017.
  17. Housing Finance at a Glance: A Monthly Chartbook, May 2017.” Negative Equity Share. Source: CoreLogic and the Urban Institute. Data provided by Urban Institute Housing Finance Policy Center Staff.
  18. Survey of Consumer Expectations Housing Survey – 2017,” Credit Quality and Inclusion, from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Accessed June 22, 2017.
Hannah Rounds
Hannah Rounds |

Hannah Rounds is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Hannah at hannah@magnifymoney.com

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7 Reasons Your Mortgage Application Was Denied

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

There are few things more nerve-racking for homebuyers than waiting to find out if they were approved for a mortgage loan.

Nearly 627,000 mortgage applications were denied in 2015, according to the latest data from the Federal Reserve, down slightly (-1.1%) year over year. If your mortgage application was denied, you may be naturally curious as to why you failed to pass muster with your lender.

There are many reasons you could have been denied, even if you’re extremely wealthy or have a perfect 850 credit score. We spoke with several mortgage experts to find out where prospective homebuyers are tripping up in the mortgage process.

Here are seven reasons your mortgage application could be denied:

You recently opened a new credit card or personal loan

Taking on new debts prior to beginning the mortgage application process is a “big no-no,” says Denver, Colo.-based loan officer Jason Kauffman. That includes every type of debt — from credit cards and personal loans to buying a car or financing furniture for your new digs.

That’s because lenders will have to factor any new debt into your debt-to-income ratio.

Your debt-to-income ratio is fairly simple to calculate: Add up all your monthly debt payments and divide that number by your monthly gross income.

A good rule of thumb is to avoid opening or applying for any new debts during the six months prior to applying for your mortgage loan, according to Larry Bettag, attorney and vice president of Cherry Creek Mortgage in Saint Charles, Ill.

For a conventional mortgage loan, lenders like to see a debt-to-income ratio below 40%. And if you’re toeing the line of 40% already, any new debts can easily nudge you over.

Rick Herrick, a loan officer at Bedford, N.H.-based Loan Originator told MagnifyMoney about a time a client opened up a Best Buy credit card in order to save 10% on his purchase just before closing on a new home. Before they were able to close his loan, they had to get a statement from Best Buy showing what his payments would be, and the store refused to do so until the first billing cycle was complete.

“Just avoid it all by not opening a new line of credit. If you do, your second call needs to be to your loan officer,” says Herrick. “Talk to your loan officer if you’re having your credit pulled for any reason whatsoever.”

Your job status has changed

Most lenders prefer to see two consistent years of employment, according to Kauffman. So if you recently lost your job or started a new job for any reason during the loan process, it could hurt your chances of approval.

Changing employment during the process can be a deal killer, but Herrick says it may not be as big a deal if there is very high demand for your job in the area and you are highly likely to keep your new job or get a new one quickly. For example, if you’re an educator buying a home in an area with a shortage of educators or a brain surgeon buying a home just about anywhere, you should be OK if you’re just starting a new job.

If you have a less-portable profession and get a new job, you may need to have your new employer verify your employment with an offer letter and submit pay stubs to requalify for approval. Even then, some employers may not agree to or be able to verify your employment. Furthermore, if your salary includes bonuses, many employers won’t guarantee them.

Bettag says one of his clients found out he lost his job the day before they were due to close, when Bettag called his employer for one last check of his employment status. “He was in tears. He found out at 10 a.m. Friday, and we were supposed to close on Saturday.”

You’ve been missing debt payments

During the loan process, any recent negative activity on your credit report, which goes back seven years, can raise concerns. The real danger zone is any activity reported within the last two years, says Bettag, which is the time period lenders play closest attention to.

That’s why he encourages loan applicants to make sure their credit reports are accurate and that old items that should have fallen off your report after seven years aren’t still appearing.

“Many things show on credit reports beyond seven years. That’s a huge issue, so we want to get dated items removed at the bureau level,” Bettag says.

For first-time homebuyers, he cautions against making any late payments six months prior to applying for a mortgage. They won’t always be a total deal-breaker, but they can obviously ding your credit, and a lower credit score can lead to a loan denial or a more expensive mortgage rate.

Existing homeowners, Bettag says, shouldn’t have any late mortgage payments in the 12 months prior to applying for a new mortgage or a refinance.

“There are workarounds, but it can be as laborious as brain surgery,” says Bettag.

You accepted a monetary gift

Your lender will be on the lookout for any out-of-place deposits to your bank accounts during the approval process. Bettag advises homebuyers not to accept any large monetary gifts at least two months or longer before you apply, and to keep a paper trail if the lender has any questions.

Any cash that can’t be traced back to a verifiable source, such as an annual bonus, or a gift from a family friend, could raise red flags.

This can be tricky for homebuyers who are relying on help from family to purchase their home. If you receive a gift of money for a down payment, it has to be deemed “acceptable” by your lender. The definition of acceptable depends on the type of mortgage loan that you are applying for and the laws that govern the process in your state.

For example, Bettag says, the Federal Housing Authority doesn’t care if a borrower’s entire down payment comes as a gift when they are applying for an FHA loan. However, the gifted funds may not be eligible to use as a down payment for a conventional loan through a bank.

You moved a large amount of money around

Ideally, avoid moving large sums of money about two months before applying.

Herrick says many borrowers make the mistake of shuffling too much cash around just before co-signing, making themselves look suspicious to bank regulators. Herrick says not to move anything more than $1,000 at a time, and none if you can help yourself.

For example, If you’re considering moving money from all of your savings accounts into one account to deliver the cashier’s check for the down payment, don’t do it. You don’t need to have everything in one account for the cashier’s check for your closing. You can submit multiple cashier’s checks. All the lender cares about is that all of the money adds up. You may be able to simply avoid some of this hassle by arranging to pay using a wire transfer. Just be sure to schedule it in time.

You overdrafted your checking account

If you have a credit issue already, says Bettag, overdrafting your checking account can be a deal-breaker, but it won’t cause as much of an issue if you have great credit and offer a good down payment. Still avoid overdrafting for at least two months prior to applying for the mortgage loan.

You may be the type to keep a low checking account balance in favor of saving more money. But if an unexpected bill could risk overdrafting your account, try keeping a few extra dollars in the account for padding, just in case.

You forgot to include debts or other information on your loan application

Your loan officer should carefully review your application to make sure it’s filled out completely and accurately. Missing a zero on your income, or accidentally skipping a section, for example, could mean rejection. A small mistake could mean losing your dream home.

There’s also the chance you accidentally omitted information the underwriter caught in the more extensive screening process, like money owed to the IRS. Disclose all of your debt to your loan officer up front. Otherwise, they may not be able to help you if the debt comes up and disqualifies you for your dream home later on.

If you owe the IRS money and are in a payment plan, Bettag says your loan officer can still work with you. However, they want to see that you’ve been in a plan for at least three months and made on-time payments to move forward.

“Can you imagine not paying your IRS debt, getting into a payment plan, and then not paying on the agreed plan? Not cool for lenders to see, but we do,” says Bettag.

The Bottom Line

There is no hard and fast rule on how long before you begin the mortgage process that you should heed these warnings. It all varies, according to Bettag. If you have excellent credit and a strong income, you might be able to get away with a recently opened credit card or other discrepancies — minor faults that might totally derail the application of a person who has bad credit and inconsistent income.

Whatever the case may be, Bettag encourages prospective homebuyers to stick to one general rule: “Don’t do anything until you’ve consulted with your loan officer.”

Brittney Laryea
Brittney Laryea |

Brittney Laryea is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Brittney at brittney@magnifymoney.com

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Meet 2 Families Who Earn Six Figures and Still Feel Broke

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Although they have lived in the Washington, D.C. metro area all their lives, Lauren Orsini and her husband, John, don’t feel they can raise a family there, despite their six-figure income.

Lauren Orsini and her husband, John, live in Arlington, Va., and both grew up in the greater Washington, D.C. metro area. They attended all levels of schooling here, and their families still live close by. But as the couple looks toward a future with children, they don’t see how they can afford to stay in their hometown — even though they bring in more than $100,000 annually.

“The life that I’m living is unsustainable, and I know it,” says Lauren, 30. “But I’m so deeply rooted here. I can’t imagine living anywhere else, even though I know this won’t last forever.”

Their plight is reflected in the findings of a recent MagnifyMoney report, which analyzed the best and worst cities for a family earning six figures. On the list of 381 metro areas, the Washington, D.C.-Arlington-Alexandria, Va., region is dead last.

“I’m not surprised at all,” Lauren says. Though she and John, a government contractor, make just above $100,000 “it doesn’t go far here even though it sounds like a lot. And you can forget about buying a place.”

The couple shells out $1,700 monthly on their one-bedroom apartment, located in a 1960s building with no thermostat or washing machine. But Lauren loves the life that Arlington affords her, particularly its proximity to D.C. proper.

She takes Japanese lessons at the embassy. Her running club recently took a route to the Lincoln Memorial and back. She can hop on the metro to visit either of her two sisters. And she and John have always enjoyed commutes of less than 20 minutes.

“If you don’t live in Arlington, I can understand how outsiders would say, ‘Well, that’s a selfish decision — you can’t have everything,” Lauren admits. “But my world is here. I’m still close with my high school friends. John’s family is 90 minutes away. We can go see a show in D.C. or watch the fireworks in just a few minutes.”

Six-Figure Incomes and Still in the Red

But the convenience and excitement of D.C. life come with hefty costs, as the MagnifyMoney study showed. The analysis — which factored in basic expenses like taxes, housing, and transportation — was designed to see where a family earning $100,000 has the most wiggle room. The estimates assume a two-income household with two adults and one child, and cities are ranked by worst (least amount of money left over at the end of each month) to best (the most amount of money left over at the end of the month).

After the D.C. area, rounding out the bottom three are Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, Conn., and San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, Calif. By contrast, Tennessee is clearly the best state for six-figure households to stretch their dollars: Johnson City, Morristown, and Cleveland are the top three cities on MagnifyMoney’s list.

The differences are stark. In Johnson City, Tenn., total monthly expenses make up just 62% of total post-tax income, leaving a $2,400 surplus. In the D.C. area, expenses come to 105% monthly — meaning households making $100,000 are $315 in the red on average at the end of the month.

“We’re doing just fine for now, but when I think about a baby and buying a house, it’s not going to work,” Lauren says. “I check Redfin every day, as if some magical condo is going to spring up. We go through this cycle of house-hunting where we lower our standards more and more, and we still can’t find anything.”

Lauren and John have found homes they think they can afford: two bedrooms, maybe 980 square feet or so, for about $650,000. But these are often condos and townhouses with high homeowners association fees, which puts the homes far above budget.

It’s frustrating. And it’s why Lauren has seen friends, one by one, scuttle out to the suburbs in search of slightly more affordable real estate and space for a family. But as with the city, the ‘burbs come with a cost: a commute to D.C. of an hour or more. Lauren fears that would be untenable for John.

She wants to see her husband stay happy at his job, where he has worked for seven years. John is also slated for a promotion soon, which could help ease some of their worries. But Lauren doesn’t expect any windfall to solve the deeper barriers of raising a child in her hometown.

“We make six figures, we responsibly put money in savings and retirement, and it’s not enough,” Lauren says with a sigh. “What I think will happen is that we won’t be able to delay having a baby any longer, and life will become about what’s best for them. But for now, it’s hard to swallow any decision that will make our lifestyle worse.”

Finding the Free in Pricey Places

D.C.-area residents like Lauren and John — and city-dwellers all over the nation — are willing to pay sky-high rents because of all that cities have to offer. While some of those offerings are trendy restaurants and pricey shows, cities are also home to loads of free fun like museums, festivals, and block parties.

That’s part of why Shanon Lee, a mother of four living in D.C.-adjacent Alexandria, Va., isn’t “really feeling the crunch with my family. It’s easy to spend money [in the D.C area], of course, but it’s also easy not to, thanks to all of these events.”

Beyond free events for her kids — who range in ange from 4 to 21 — Shanon herself also scores frequent invitations to outings in her role as a filmmaker, artist, and writer. What’s more, Shanon’s live-in partner works in IT, and he can easily pick up side jobs like refurbishing computers.

“I know we’re lucky that we’re doing well, and he can make $2,000 in a heartbeat by grabbing a quick job if he wants,” Shanon says. “But lots of people I know are living with roommates even when they don’t want to. And in our last neighborhood, a bunch of families packed in grandparents too.”

Still, Shanon says she and her family are “always looking for ways to reduce our expenses.” She opted not to enroll her youngest in a preschool that would have cost $380 weekly, instead balancing her work-at-home life with caring for her child. The family currently pays $2,600 monthly to rent their townhome in Alexandria, though they’re looking to move a few blocks away where homes can rent for $1,900. After that? Unlike Lauren Orsini, Shanon doesn’t feel tied to the D.C. metro.

“It’s a transient area, and I’ve found it can be hard to form lasting relationships,” Shanon explains. “We don’t necessarily feel at home.”

Shanon isn’t sure where her family’s forever home will be, but she plans to choose a spot based on the basics.

“Our primary considerations are factors like cost of living, safety, and good school districts,” Shanon says. “You have to stay focused on the important things.”

Julianne Pepitone
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Julianne Pepitone is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Julianne here

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It Could Get a Lot Easier to Sue Your Bank Thanks to This New Regulation

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With looming existential threats from both the Trump administration and the federal court system, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau went ahead on Monday with a controversial rule that will change the way nearly all consumer contracts with financial institutions are written.

The end of forced arbitration?

The rule will ensure that all consumers can join what CFPB Director Richard Cordray called “group” lawsuits — generally known as class-action lawsuits — when they feel financial institutions have committed small-dollar, high-volume frauds. Currently, many contracts contain mandatory arbitration clauses that explicitly force consumers to waive their rights to join class-action lawsuits. Instead, consumers are forced to enter individual arbitration, a step critics say most don’t bother to pursue.

Consumer groups have for years claimed waivers were unjust and even illegal, but in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with corporate lawyers, paving the way for even more companies to include the prohibition in standard-form contracts for products like credit cards and checking accounts.

How to be sure you’re protected by the new rule

Monday’s rule is slated to take effect in about eight months, meaning most new contracts signed after that date can’t contain the class-action waiver. Prohibitions in current contracts will remain in effect.

Consumers who want to ensure they enjoy their new rights will have to close current accounts and open new ones after the effective date, the CFPB said.

“By blocking group lawsuits, mandatory arbitration clauses force consumers either to give up or to go it alone — usually over relatively small amounts that may not be worth pursuing on one’s own,” Cordray said during the announcement.

“Including these clauses in contracts allows companies to sidestep the judicial system, avoid big refunds, and continue to pursue profitable practices that may violate the law and harm large numbers of consumers. … Our common-sense rule applies to the major markets for consumer financial products and services under the Bureau’s jurisdiction, including those in which providers lend money, store money, and move or exchange money.”

A long road ahead for the CFPB

The ruling was several years in the making, initiated by the Dodd-Frank financial reforms of 2010, which called on the CFPB to first study the issue and then write a new rule. But it almost didn’t happen: With the election of Donald Trump and Republican control of the White House, the CFPB faces major changes, including the expiration of Cordray’s term next year.

Also, House Republicans have passed legislation that would drastically change the CFPB’s structure. Either of these could lead to the undoing of Monday’s rule. When I asked the CFPB at Monday’s announcement what the process for such undoing would be, the bureau didn’t respond.

“I can’t comment on what might happen in the future,” said Eric Goldberg, Senior Counsel, Office of Regulations.

Cordray cited the recent Wells Fargo scandal as evidence the arbitration waiver ban was necessary. Before the fake account controversy became widely known, consumers had tried to sue the bank but were turned back by courts citing the contract language.

Under the new rules, consumers would have an easier time finding lawyers willing to sue banks in such situations. No lawyer will take a case involving a single $39 controversy, but plenty will do so if the case potentially involves thousands, or even millions, of clients.

Consumer groups immediately hailed the new rule.

“The CFPB’s rule restores ordinary folks’ day in court for widespread violations of the law,” said Lauren Saunders, association director of the National Consumer Law Center. “Forced arbitration is simply a license to steal when a company like Wells Fargo commits fraud through millions of fake accounts and then tells customers: ‘Too bad, you can’t go to court and can’t team up; you have to fight us one by one behind closed doors and before a private arbitrator of our choice instead of a public court with an impartial judge.’”

The CFPB and Monday’s rule also face an uncertain future because a federal court last fall ruled that part of the bureau’s executive structure was unconstitutional. The CFPB is appealing the ruling, and a decision may come soon. Should the CFPB lose, it will be easier for Trump to fire Cordray immediately, and companies may have legal avenue to challenge CFPB rules.

On the other hand, enacting the rule now may give supporters momentum that will be difficult for the industry to stop — a situation similar to the Labor Department’s fiduciary rule requiring financial advisers to act in their clients’ best interests. While the Trump administration took steps to stop that rule from taking effect, many companies had already begun to comply, and simply continued with that process.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce was heavily critical of the new rule.

“The CFPB’s brazen finalization of the arbitration rule is a prime example of an agency gone rogue. CFPB’s actions exemplify its complete disregard for the will of Congress, the administration, the American people, and even the courts,” the Chamber said in a statement.

“As we review the rule, we will consider every approach to address our concerns, and we encourage Congress to do the same — including exploring the Congressional Review Act. Additionally, we call upon the administration and Congress to establish the necessary checks and balances on the CFPB before it takes more one-sided, overreaching actions.”

But consumer groups called Monday’s ruling a victory.

“Forced arbitration deprives victims of not only their day in court, but the right to band together with other targets of corporate lawbreaking. It’s a get-out-of-jail-free card for lawbreakers,” said Lisa Donner, executive director of Americans for Financial Reform. “The consumer agency’s rule will stop Wall Street and predatory lenders from ripping people off with impunity, and make markets fairer and safer for ordinary Americans.”

Bob Sullivan
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5 Ways to Protect Your Money on Summer Vacation

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Summer vacations should be a time to relax and recharge your batteries. It’s also a time to socialize more, travel more, and fly to exotic destinations.

For those who are traveling long distances (especially to another country) during the summer, there are a few precautions you need to take to ensure that you protect your money. If you set these in place, you can relax a bit more and, hopefully, have more fun on your trip.

Tell Bank and Credit Card Companies About Your Travel Plans

If you don’t tell your bank or credit card company that you’re planning on traveling, they may think all those purchases you’ve made are faulty. Unfortunately, that means that you may lose access to your credit or debit card.

It only takes a few minutes to call these places and let them know about your plans. Doing so is even more important for those planning on traveling overseas. When you call, let them know the places you plan on visiting and how long your trip will last.

Only Bring the Necessities in Your Wallet

If you have a lot of cards and IDs in your wallet, only take what you will use on your trip. For example, bring a credit card, a backup credit card, and an ATM or debit card if you plan on withdrawing cash. If you need to, bring your driver’s license.

To prevent identity theft, leave your Social Security card at home in case your wallet gets stolen. If you think you might need it for any reason, photocopy it and black-out the last four digits. In fact, it’s a good idea to make photocopies of credit and bank cards you’ll be taking with you on your trip, as well as your IDs (including the passport data page) to keep on hand. You can also give copies of those, as well as your travel itinerary, to a trusted friend or family member at home in case of an emergency.

The less you have in your wallet, the less of a hassle it will be if you do need to replace your cards if they get stolen. It’s even better if you put your credit cards and IDs in separate locations so you don’t lose all access to cash during your trip.

Use Your Credit Card as Much as Possible

Most credit cards will protect you from liability for fraudulent purchases, which is helpful in case your card is lost or stolen. Also, if you make most of your major purchases on your credit card (such as hotel and flights), you may be eligible for travel insurance. Of course, that depends on the terms on your credit card.

Using credit cards instead of cash means that you can recoup your losses much faster. If someone stole cash from your wallet, the chances of getting that money back are pretty slim. However, if you have a credit card stolen, all future purchases made will not be your responsibility.

If you want to save money on pesky exchange fees, make sure to use a credit card that has no foreign transaction fees. That means you’re only paying the exchange rate on the day you make a purchase. You can even consider using a cash back or travel rewards card to earn points while you travel. Some cards, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred, allow you to earn 2x points on travel and dining purchases.

Watch Out for Fake ATMs

There may be times when you need to get cash during your vacation. With thousands of ATM machines around the world, there’s no shortage of access. However, you’ll want to make sure that the machine you’re getting your cash from is a legitimate one.

Unfortunately, thieves like to put fake ATM machines in high traffic tourist areas. What happens is they end up stealing your card information and all your money along with it. In 2010, a man in Beijing was arrested for installing a fake ATM machine near a corner store. Unsuspecting passers-by would use the machine, get an “out of order” message, and later discover their accounts had been drained.

If you’re unsure about the ATM machine, don’t use it. The Beijing fraudster went to some trouble to make his ATM look legit, even adding signage like “24 hours self-service,” according to media reports. But there were some pretty clear giveaways to show the Beijing machine was a fake — the money slot was sealed shut, the security camera was a piece of plastic, and the receipt slot was sealed.

To play it safe, it might be better to avoid stand-alone ATMs and stick to ATMs that are located in airports, transportation hubs, hotels, or banks.

You can even do a bit of research beforehand and look up ATM machine locations on your bank or credit card website. For example, Visa and MasterCard show locations of their ATM machines around the world. You can easily do a search and know which one you can head to.

Also, consider keeping only a small amount of cash in the account linked to your debit card. Even if your account is compromised, a thief won’t get away with much.

Keep Up with Your Purchases from Your Trip

There’s nothing wrong with relaxing, but you still need to be alert on your trip. Whenever you purchase something, check the receipt to make sure all charges are accounted for or you got the right change if you paid in cash. If you have online bank access, check to see if all charges are actually yours.

Also, you’ll want to be as organized as possible. Aside from only bringing the necessities in your wallet, make sure you can access your things easily in your purse or bag. If you have to search in your bag a lot, you may end up misplacing important documents or lose valuable items.

It’s also a good idea to review your credit card and bank statements when you get back from your trip if you weren’t able to check it during your trip. If there is fraudulent activity, report it right away.

Final Thoughts

Protecting your money on your summer vacation doesn’t have to be stressful or take a lot of time. As long as you take some precautions and are careful in your surroundings, you’ll be able to enjoy your vacation much more.

Sarah Li Cain
Sarah Li Cain |

Sarah Li Cain is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Sarah Li here

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