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The Ultimate LearnVest Premium Review — Online Financial Planning for $299 Upfront, $19/Month

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The Ultimate LearnVest Premium Review

If you’re young, or simply don’t have an extra $1,100 to $5,600 a year on average lying around waiting to pay a financial planner, it can be difficult to know where to turn for financial guidance. Fortunately, several online financial planning companies have made financial planning more affordable. LearnVest is one of many such companies that have cropped up in recent years to provide the service at a lower cost.

What Is LearnVest?

LearnVest is an online financial planning company that was founded in 2009 with a mission to give young professionals access to affordable financial planning services. The platform combines budgeting tools with resources for financial information and the opportunity to gain access to an online financial planner if you upgrade your package. The startup went on to raise $75 million in venture capital until it was finally acquired in 2015 by Northwestern Mutual. The merger allowed LearnVest to develop and expand its offerings. Since its founding, the platform has developed into a more affordable way for members of either gender to gain access to a financial planner and to create and manage a personal financial plan.

How It Works

LearnVest offers both a paid and unpaid version of its services. The free version gives you access to the company’s online budgeting tool and dashboard to help you manage your budget, similar to popular budgeting platforms like Mint and YNAB.

You can also peruse LearnVest’s Knowledge Center, where you’ll find a wealth of articles and videos with information about several financial topics.

If you are looking for personalized financial advice from an expert, you’ll need to sign up for the paid version, called LearnVest Premium. For an initial payment of $299 plus $19/month, the premium service comes with access to a personal financial planner in addition to the online dashboard features.

MagnifyMoney tapped staff writer Brittney Laryea to test out LearnVest’s financial planning service, LearnVest Premium, and review it here. Find out more about LearnVest and Brittney’s review below.

The LearnVest Premium Review

As a 22-year-old recent college graduate, I am in that important stage in life. I reviewed LearnVest from the perspective of someone who has never gotten professional financial advice before and is looking to get her financial life in order as she starts her career. My experience will certainly be different from, say, a single mother or an elderly couple facing retirement. But I tried to demonstrate how each element of the LearnVest experience works so anyone reading will get a sense of what they offer.

The LearnVest Premium Review

The Fees

For $299 up front, you’ll get access to a personal financial planner who will set up a time to speak with you on two separate occasions and work with you to create a personal financial plan. You can split the $299 payment into two payments of $149 or three payments of $99. After the two initial phone calls, you’ll pay LearnVest $19 each month for “ongoing support” from your planner via email.

At $299, LearnVest is certainly delivering when it promises to offer affordable financial planning services. The average financial planner charges an initial fee of $500 to $2,000 and then about $50 to $300 monthly for ongoing service.

$19 per month for ongoing financial planning is only a little more than Spotify premium customers pay for monthly subscriptions.

So far so good. But what are you really getting for that money?

Creating My “Smart Profile”

The first thing you’re prompted to do when you sign up for LearnVest Premium is to fill out your financial profile, which is called your “Smart Profile.”

Creating My “Smart Profile”

You’ll enter basic financial information for your planner such as your annual income, goals, and current budget if you have one. This is also when you would link all of your accounts — checking, savings, credit card, retirement, student loans, etc. — to your profile if you haven’t already done so. In addition to prepping your information for your planner, filling out the financial profile helps put your current finances in perspective in relation to your financial goals. This part was intuitive and took less than 15 minutes for me complete.

After that, I was eager to schedule my call with my planner, which I was prompted to do after filling out the Smart Profile.

The First Call: Strategy Session

The goal of the first call is to lay the foundation for what will become your complete financial action plan with your planner. But you won’t receive the actual plan until your second call. During the first call the planner gets an idea of your financial situation. Your final plan takes all of the details that you discuss with your planner in this first conversation and shows the smaller steps you’ll need to follow to reach your financial goals. For me, those were things like paying off my student loans and saving up for retirement, but for others it could be things like saving up to buy a new home or for your kid’s college education.

The First Call: Strategy Session

During the call, you’ll speak with your planner over the phone, while you both look at the plan-to-be in your LearnVest dashboard. The first thing my planner did was verify all of the information that I entered into my Smart Profile. He then asked if there were any other accounts or information that I needed to add or clarify. Your planner may also ask about your current insurance policies and important financial documents such as a regular or living will or power of attorney.

At the end of the call, you should have a general idea of the plan-to-be, and your planner may assign some follow-up homework for you to complete before your next call (ideally, about a week later) such as sending additional information that will help them create your action plan. Your planner may also assign you a challenge — which you can see when you log in to your dashboard. The challenge may be to practice a budget for the week or to create a bank account.

My experience:

My first call was enjoyable, and we spoke for about an hour. My planner was patient as I clarified and adjusted information I entered into my Smart Profile.

After we sorted out my personal accounts and debts, my planner asked about my short- and long-term financial goals such as saving for an emergency fund or for travel. I’d given some thought to retirement before. I actually already started contributing to a 401(k) through my employer. I think of travel as more of a luxury, and definitely not a necessity. If I had extra money and the ability to travel, then I would, but everything else comes first. This would be the first time I’d specifically set aside funds to travel in the future. Keeping my savings goals in mind helped to inform the budget he would create for me. The planner made sure to factor in the monthly $19 for LearnVest’s ongoing support into my overall expenses.

Then he calculated a tentative weekly spending budget based on my outlined plan. The weekly spending number was the amount I could spend each week and still accomplish all of my monthly goals. It’s determined by splitting up what was left of my flexible spending over the number of weeks left in the month.

One aspect I appreciated was that my planner gave me three different budgets with varying levels of spending flexibility. I chose the budget that gave me the tightest weekly spending allowance, meaning more of my money was going toward my goals each month.

budget strategy

He also gave me a few financial tips during the first call. I’ve listed a few below, although there were many more.

  • Freezing (in a bag of water, in my freezer) or hiding my credit card to trick myself into not using it to help with paying down the balance.
  • Opening high-yield checking and savings accounts with an online bank. My planner recommended Ally Bank, where I could earn 1% on my savings, versus the 0.01% I earned at Wells Fargo. Luckily, I was already in the middle of switching to Ally from Wells Fargo. His encouragement gave me the extra boost I needed to get it done.
  • Setting up two checking accounts — one as a regular checking account but without a physical debit card linked to it, the other a “spending” account that was linked to my debit card. Then I was to set up an automatic weekly transfer of my weekly budget into the spending account to use. This way, it would be impossible to go over my budget without deliberately transferring funds over to my spending account.
  • Think about insurance options. He also explained to me the importance of having different types of insurance plans that many don’t get through an employer such as renters insurance or life and disability insurance. The explanation was helpful, and easy enough to understand. But I have to admit, I didn’t follow the advice. I hadn’t yet considered paying for what I see as “extras” like renters insurance or life and disability insurance. I rent, but I don’t own anything of substantial value so, for me, renters insurance is a waste. I figure I’ll just get it when I have something more valuable than my rice cooker to protect. One of my parents pays for a small life insurance policy that I’ve had since high school, and I’m young so here’s hoping I don’t suddenly become disabled while I look into it. I’ll likely start paying for disability insurance in February 2017.

After we covered those details, we scheduled a follow-up call, which would take place about a month later.

The Homework

After our talk, my planner sent me a follow-up email with my homework for the week. I had two assignments: to open new checking and savings accounts and to double-check my existing insurance policies and coverage amounts.

He also assigned me a “challenge,” which are little tasks your adviser sets up for you on the LearnVest website. You can see your challenges when you are logged in to your LearnVest dashboard, and you’ll get email reminders when the deadline for the challenges are close. You can check off your challenges as you complete them, or mark them as missed. Be honest; your adviser will ask you about them in the follow-up call.

action program

My first challenge was to practice the weekly spending budget he created for me during the initial call. The added challenge was to use cash only (so that I could physically see what I would be spending). Having the challenge helped me to keep my budget in mind; however, I didn’t complete it. My 22nd birthday was that week, and I take my birthday celebrations pretty seriously.

Since my weekly budget was determined by splitting up what was left of my flexible spending over the remaining weeks of the month, I just subtracted what I used up on my birthday celebrations and determined a new weekly budget for the rest of the month.

The Second Call: Getting My Action Plan

This is the call that solidifies your financial action plan. During the second call, your planner will explain to you all of the ins and outs of following the plan they have created for you to follow based on information from the first call.

The second call will be about a week or two later, depending on your scheduling availability and that of your planner. I scheduled my follow-up call at the end of our previous conversation for two weeks later, but I had to reschedule via email because I had other obligations come up. Rescheduling was painless and completed in less than 24 hours. My planner responded to my initial email with the times he would have available coming up, I emailed back with the time that worked for me best, and I was booked.

My experience:

Because I had to reschedule our initial follow-up call, our second call was about a month later. By then, I was used to my new weekly budget and felt good and ready to begin my new action plan. Before we got to my actual action plan, my planner checked in with me to see how I did with my suggested weekly budget.

He even gave me the option to switch to one of the other versions he created with a little more flexible spending, but a longer road to my savings goals. I struggled a bit with my birthday spending and a few emergencies, but I knew those were outliers and I could easily stick to the weekly allotment in a regular week.

I chose to stick with my budget. He also asked me if anything about my financial situation had changed since we’d last spoken. One thing did change: I planned to move into a cheaper apartment the following month. My planner made a note to adjust my action plan accordingly and said the final plan would include the update. Afterward, he talked me through how to implement the action plan he created for me.

Toward the end of our conversation, he explained important financial documents I should have at any age such as a living will and where I could look for resources to complete them in my dashboard. In the dashboard, under the “Program” tab is a section called “Planner Picks” that has the company’s approved recommended resources.

Action Plan and a $2.5 Million Surprise

My planner delivered my action plan to me via my LearnVest dashboard. It was a PDF file of about 20 pages that I could download to my computer if I wanted. It was super simple to understand and split into three parts:

  1. A recap of my current financial situation
  2. My financial goals
  3. The action steps that would help me to reach my goals over time

The Recap

The recap restated my weekly spending number (that’s the amount I was allowed to spend each week) and still accomplish all of my monthly goals.

The Goals Summary

The goals part broke down each of my stated savings and debt goals and showed how I would go about reaching them over five years.

The Goals Summary

The goals changed over time to reflect when smaller goals like my emergency fund and credit card payoff would be complete. Of course, this part also included my retirement needs.

I was shocked at his calculation: I would need to save more than $2.5 million to maintain my current income in retirement. To get there, I would need to continue contributing 10% towards my 401(k) and bump that contribution up by 2% every year or any time I get a raise. The idea here is that I would save more as I earned more over time. Sounds doable enough. Finally, it listed what estate documents I needed, such as a living will and beneficiary forms. To be honest, I haven’t completed my living will yet. You can upload these documents to your dashboard once they are completed.

The Action Steps

The final part outlined the action steps that I would take monthly to reach my goals. It briefly reviewed my monthly budget and showed how I should set up my accounts so that each month of successful budgeting would contribute to my overall goals.

I had a few more challenges assigned to me, such as learning to categorize my purchases and create goals in the dashboard. My planner sent a follow-up email after both calls recapping what we discussed. Moving forward, I would have ongoing support from him via email and had a copy of my plan available to me in my LearnVest dashboard.

For now, I’m following the plan as best as I can. The first month was rough with moving expenses and holiday expenses, but I’m confident I’ll be able to beat my weekly spending target and pay down my debts even faster when life settles down a bit.

What Is Meant by “Ongoing Support”?

Ongoing support from LearnVest means that you can reach out to your planner for help or advice via email, anytime. Your planner will also continue setting up challenges for you in your dashboard and may, on occasion or when you email them, ask you about your progress.

I follow up with the challenges when they are assigned to me, but I’ve only had to contact my planner once via email to clarify my insurance needs. Other than those little questions, I don’t have much of a reason to contact the planner since my entire plan is on my dashboard, and I have a feeling I’ll be following the same plan for a while.

Pros and Cons

Pro: Quick Responses

Having email access to your planner actually works out pretty well. I was impressed when I emailed my planner late in the day with a question and he got back to me via email in less than 24 hours.

Pro: Online and Mobile

LearnVest is accessible to you on the computer and in an app for your mobile device. Having both platforms makes it easy and convenient to check your progress toward your goals or edit your budget whenever or wherever.

Pro: Challenges

Each time your planner sets up a new challenge for you, you’ll get an email. They will be challenges such as watching an educational video, practicing a shopping fast for a month, or automating contributions to one of your savings accounts. The challenges help in a couple of ways. They are a reminder to log in to your dashboard if you aren’t prone to doing so on your own. The challenges also serve as a way for your planner to contact you and keep you motivated with creative short-term financial goals.

Con: No Face Time

Both meetings with your financial planner will take place over the phone. You can’t video chat or otherwise see the person to whom you are giving your financial information face to face, which may make some feel cautious or uncomfortable. Your planner may do as mine did and exchange some polite banter or offer to answer any questions you may have about LearnVest or the process to help you feel more comfortable.

Con: No Credit Score Information

You’ll need to download a separate app it you want to monitor your credit score. Unlike other popular budgeting apps, such as Mint, you won’t be able to see any information related to credit score or credit report information with LearnVest.

Con: Can’t Split Transactions on Mobile

The LearnVest mobile app’s budgeting software doesn’t allow you split up one transaction into multiple categories. So if you spent money on both clothes and food in one location, you’ll have to log in at a desktop computer to split the transaction.

Con: No Investment Management

Unlike the robo-advisers out there and some other financial planning platforms, LearnVest doesn’t manage your investments. You can check out this article for a few robo-advisers if investment management interests you.

Other Financial Planning Platforms to Consider

There are a host of other robo-advisers and online financial planning tools that target millennials cropping up to choose from that you may prefer over LearnVest.

Stash Wealth

A newer online financial planning platform, Stash Wealth, operates very similarly to LearnVest, but is aimed at what it calls H.E.N.R.Ys (High Earners Not Rich Yet). It costs $997 to get started, then $50/month to continue the service. Stash Wealth does do more of the work for you — like setting up automation for your savings and checking your tax information — so you don’t pay any taxes that you don’t have to pay. Once you’re ready, they start investing your money for you in accordance with your goals.

XY Planning Network

The XY Planning Network is a network of fee-only financial advisers who focus specifically on Gen X and Gen Y clients. There are no minimums required to get started as a client, and advisers in the XY Planning Network are not permitted to accept commissions, referral fees, or kickbacks. In other words, no high-pressure sales pitches or hidden agendas. Just practical financial advice doled out at a flat monthly rate. The organization is location independent, offering virtual services that enable any client to connect with any adviser regardless of where they reside.

Garrett Planning Network

A national network featuring hundreds of financial planners, the Garrett Planning Network checks many key boxes for millennials. All members of the Garrett Planning Network charge for their services by the hour on a fee-only basis. They do not accept commissions, and clients pay only for the time spent working with their adviser. Just as important for millennials, advisers in the Garrett Planning Network require no income or investment account minimums for their hourly services.

Mvelopes

Mvelopes is an app that provides a spinoff of the cash envelope budgeting system popularized by Dave Ramsey. Like LearnVest, its basic version is free and allows you to link up to four bank accounts or credit cards. Mvelopes has a second tier called Mvelopes Premier. It costs $95 a year, and you can link an unlimited number of bank accounts and credit cards, among other features. Mvelopes’ top tier, Money4Life Coaching, adds one-on-one coaching tailored to your financial needs as LearnVest Premier does. However, there is no price for this tier specified on the website.

The Final Verdict

LearnVest Premium is a convenient and cheap alternative to an in-person financial adviser if you need a little additional help planning your finances or a convenient reminder to stick to your budget, but it’s not worth the $299 + $19 a month if you just want to keep an eye on your spending. For the latter, stick to the apps that do it better, like Mint and YNAB.

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Tax Tips for Recent College Graduates

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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.

When life changes, so do your taxes, and graduating from college brings several life changes that can affect your tax return. You may go from being claimed as a dependent by your parents to filing on your own for the first time. You may move out of state, collect a paycheck for the first time, and start paying off student loans. All of these events present opportunities to save — and costly pitfalls to avoid. To help you keep more of what you earn in this next phase of life, check out these tax tips for recent college graduates.

Figure out if your parents can still claim you as a dependent

If you just graduated, you may still be eligible to be claimed as a dependent on your parents’ tax return. Dependency rules are complex, but essentially, for your parents to claim you as a dependent:

  • you must be under age 24 at the end of the year,
  • you must be a full-time student (enrolled for the number of credit hours the school considers full time) for at least five months of the year,
  • you must have lived with your parents for more than half the year (you are deemed to live with your parents while you are temporarily living away from home for education), and
  • your parent must have provided more than half of your financial support for the year.

If you meet all of these tests, your parents can still claim you as a dependent and take advantage of the dependency exemptions and education credits.

Even if your parents claim you as a dependent, you may still be required to file your own return if you had more than $2,600 of unearned income (interest, dividends, and capital gains) or more than $7,850 of earned income (wages or self-employment income).

Get reimbursed for moving expenses if you moved in order to take a new job

If you moved for a new job after graduation, you might be able to deduct any unreimbursed moving expenses, as long as the new job is at least 50 miles away from your old home. Those expenses include costs to pack and ship your belongings and lodging expenses along the way, but not meals. You can also take a deduction for 17 cents per mile driven for 2017 (down from 19 cents per mile in 2016).

If you moved out of state, you might have to file two state returns if you had taxable income in both states. Many students have a part-time job while in school and take a full-time job in another state after graduation. Rules vary drastically by state. In some states, you will have to claim 100% of your income on your resident state return, then receive a credit for any taxes paid to another state. In this case, you may be better off working with a professional who can help guide you through filing in both states.

Make sure you’re withholding the right amount from your paycheck

When you start your new job, the human resources department will ask you to complete a Form W-4 to indicate how much of your paycheck you’d like your employer to take out for taxes. Working through the questions on the form is simple enough, but it doesn’t take into account how much of the year you’ll be working.

Most new graduates end up having too much federal tax withheld in their first year, effectively giving the government an interest-free loan, says Bradley Greenberg, a CPA and partner at Kessler Orlean Silver & Co. in Deerfield, Ill.

That’s because graduates rarely start new jobs right at the start of a new year. You may graduate in May and start working in June, or graduate in December but not find a job until February. Yet you are taxed as if you have been earning that pay for the entire year.

“The withholding tables are designed with the assumption that one makes the same amount of money for each pay period of the year, regardless of how many pay periods were worked,” Greenberg says. “For example, a June graduate starting a job on July 1 for $50,000 will have the same taxes withheld per pay period as a colleague with the same salary, marital status, and number of exemptions, but who worked the entire year.”

Greenberg recommends two courses of action for new graduates:

  1. Set up your withholding in your first year of employment so less tax is withheld. Then make sure you adjust it on the following January 1, so you don’t have too little tax withheld in your first full year of employment, or
  2. View this as a savings plan and file your taxes as early as possible next year to get your refund from the IRS.

Take advantage of student tax credits

If your parents can no longer claim you as a dependent, you may be eligible to claim valuable tax credits for any tuition you paid during the year. There are two tax credits for higher education costs: the Lifetime Learning Credit and the American Opportunity Credit.

For 2016, there is also the tuition and fees deduction (Congress failed to renew this deduction, which expired on December 31, 2016, so it is not available for 2017). The rules and income limits for each credit and the deduction vary, but the IRS offers an interactive tool on their website to help you determine which tax break applies to you.

If you used student loans to pay for your education, you can take a deduction for up to $2,500 of interest paid on a qualified student loan. If your parents made loan payments on your behalf, you are in luck. Typically, you can only deduct interest if you actually paid the debt, but when parents pay back student loans, the IRS treats it as if the money was given to the child, who then repaid the debt.

Don’t ignore your 401(k) or health savings account at work

New college graduates may be financially strapped and hesitant to divert part of their paycheck into a retirement plan or health savings account, but opting out means missing out on substantial tax-saving and wealth-building opportunities.

If your employer offers a matching 401(k) contribution, as soon as you’re eligible you should contribute at least enough to get the employer match. Otherwise, you’re missing out on free money. If you select a traditional 401(k), you can save on next year’s taxes. That’s because any contributions you make will be tax free, and they will reduce the amount of your income subject to federal income tax as well as Social Security and Medicare (FICA) taxes.

For better or for worse, many employers now offer high-deductible health insurance plans. These plans often come with health savings accounts (HSAs). Any money you set aside in an HSA can be used for any qualifying medical expense, from co-pays to prescriptions. The best part is that money you put into your HSA is not taxed, so you can potentially save a lot by using your HSA for medical expenses rather than paying out of pocket.

HSA funds stay in the account until you use them and are portable, meaning you can take it with you even if you leave your job. If you have big medical bills down the road, the funds can come in handy. If not, think of them as another tax-advantaged way to save for retirement.

Bring in a professional if you think you need help

If this is your first time filing on your own, you may be wondering whether you should do it yourself or pay someone to prepare your return for you. If you have a simple return with just a Form W-2 and perhaps some interest income, you could save money by buying some tax software and doing it yourself. MagnifyMoney’s guide to the best tax software is a great place to start.

But if you have dependents, investments, or a small business, you may be better off going to a reputable accountant.

Doing your taxes is never fun, but for recent college graduates, they may not be as big a headache as you might have heard. Keep in mind that tax laws often change, and everyone’s situation is a little different. But taking the time to know which tax breaks apply to you can make your post-college life significantly easier.

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Building Credit, Featured

Collection Accounts Don’t Always Hurt Your Credit for Seven Years

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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.

When you fall behind on a bill, you might get charged a late fee and your late payments could be recorded in your credit reports. If a bill goes unpaid for long enough, your creditor may send or sell your account to a collection agency.

The collection agency will then attempt to collect the balance from you — sometimes aggressively — and often reports its possession of your account to the credit bureaus. A new account with the collection agency’s name will then appear on your credit reports, and this can have a significant negative impact on your credit scores.

You might think that paying off the debt clears everything up, but that isn’t necessarily the case.

Generally, if you pay the amount you owe or settle for a lower payment, the collection account on your reports will be updated and marked paid in full, settled, or something similar. The impact of a collection account on your credit scores diminishes over time, and a paid account could look better to creditors than an unpaid account. But like other derogatory marks, the account can remain on your reports for up to seven years and 180 days since the account first became delinquent (your first late payment with the original creditor).

After an account is removed from your credit report, collection agencies can still continue to attempt to collect payment as long as the account isn’t outside the governing statute of limitations (state laws determine how long a creditor can attempt to collect certain debts).

Even so, removing a collection account could improve your credit scores, making it easier and less expensive to open new loans or lines of credit. Here are a few exceptions to the standard timeline and instances when a collection account won’t affect your credit score.

You’re a New York state resident. For current New York state residents, satisfied judgments and paid collection accounts must be removed five years from the date filed or date of last activity, respectively.

The collection account was for a medical bill that your insurance paid. A settlement between New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and the three nationwide credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion — in March 2015 resulted in new national credit-reporting policies. Now, medical debt can’t be reported to the credit bureaus for 180 days, and medical collection accounts that are being paid, or are paid in full, by an insurance company must be removed from your credit report.

You didn’t have a contractual agreement to pay the debt. Another result of the settlement in New York was that credit reporting agencies can no longer report debts that aren’t a result of a contract or agreement you signed. In other words, if your debt from a parking ticket or library fine gets sent to a collection agency, it won’t be added to your credit reports.

The collection agency agrees to a pay for delete. Also known as pay for removal, a pay-for-delete agreement with a collection agency is an arrangement in which you agree to pay some or all of the amount owed the collection agency and requests the credit bureaus delete the collection account from your reports.

You’ll want to get a written agreement from the collection agency before sending a payment, but this could be difficult because in general a pay-for-delete agreement is considered a little shady. “Right now, the credit reporting standards do not allow for deletion of accurate collections simply because they’re paid,” says credit expert John Ulzheimer, formerly of FICO and Equifax. “That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, simply that it’s counter to the standards that debt collectors have been given by the credit reporting industry players.”

It requires the collection agency to stop reporting an account that legitimately existed, which may violate the agreement the collection agency has with one or more of the credit reporting agencies.

Midland Credit Management bought your debt. In October 2016, Midland Credit Management, a subsidiary of Encore Capital Group, one of the largest debt collection agencies in the world, announced a new policy.

If MCM bought your debt and you begin payments within three months, and continue making payments until the account is paid off, the company won’t report the account to the credit bureaus (i.e., it won’t appear on your credit reports).

Additionally, if it’s been more than two years since the date of delinquency and you pay the account in full or settle the account, MCM will request the credit bureaus delete the collection account from your credit reports.

The account isn’t yours. If a collection account is on one of your credit reports and you don’t owe the debt, or it’s a type of collection account that meets one of the above criteria for removal, you may be able to dispute the account. The Fair Credit Reporting Act requires the credit bureaus and data furnishers (such as a collection agency) to correct inaccurate information.

Your lender uses one of the latest credit-score models. You might have paid or settled a collection account and still have to wait for the account to drop off your credit reports. However, if your lender is using the latest base FICO Score, FICO 9, or the VantageScore 3 scoring model, paid or settled collection accounts won’t affect your credit score. FICO Score 8 and 9 don’t consider collection accounts if your original balance was under $100.

However, lenders may use older credit-scoring models, which means a collection account could affect your score for as long as it’s on your credit reports and regardless of the original debt.

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5 Ways Your Obamacare Coverage Could Change This Year

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5 Ways Your Obamacare Coverage Could Change This Year

Humana’s announcement last week that it is dropping out of the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare) exchange and President Donald Trump’s tweet Friday that the Obamacare repeal is “moving fast” capped a frenzied week for the embattled law.

The proposed rule the Trump administration issued last week could mean major changes and increased costs for those who have Obamacare as well as other coverage. Congress would have to act to change Obamacare.

Amid the uncertainty about what will happen to Obamacare, here are five potential ways you and your health care spending could be impacted if the changes succeed.

The main changes would include:

  • Giving insurers the ability to offer more products that also cost more.
  • Removing the federal government’s oversight of insurers’ hospital and doctor networks.
  • Cutting in half the open enrollment period.
  • Requiring paperwork in advance that proves eligibility for enrolling outside of the open period.

1. You might need to find a new health plan

Humana last week announced it will drop out of the exchange, saying it would no longer provide individual plans in 2018.

“That’s been a pretty consistent phenomenon for the last two years, where you might have a particular insurance provider and then they pull out of the exchange, and so now you’ve got to go find another one,” says Chris Rylands, a partner in the Atlanta, Ga., office of Bryan Cave LLP, an international law firm. His practice focuses on employee benefits.

Humana analyzed the customers who had signed up through the exchange and found too much risk

2. Your costs for women’s health benefits could rise

With the Trump administration’s vow to overhaul Obamacare, some American women are feeling insecure about their birth control options.

In one example, Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in January that Planned Parenthood’s patient requests for IUDs has jumped by 900%.

Sneha Bhakta, 22, is among the women who plan to look into requesting an IUD.

She and her parents pay about $500 each month for the three of them to have insurance through Obamacare.

“I follow the news extremely closely. Yes, my parents are concerned about the changing policies. Mostly because it’s all up in the air,” Bhakta says.

Bhakta, who lives in Atlanta, Ga., attended the Atlanta March for Social Justice and Woman in January, which was among hundreds of events the same weekend as the Women’s March on Washington. She says she’s scared about the possibility of losing coverage, especially the reproductive health care benefits, such as free birth control and pap exams.

3. Your deductible could go up

Proposed changes to the Affordable Care Act will create more leniency in how plans are classified. The greater leniency will allow for more diverse choices in the health care market, but could increase co-payments and deductibles for consumers.

All participating insurance plans have to cover 60% of out-of-pocket costs to qualify as a bronze-level plan, 70% for a silver plan, and 80% for gold. While the insurance plan pays for 70% of out-of-pocket costs for a silver plan, consumers would pay the remaining 30% through a combination of deductibles, co-pays, and co-insurance. Under the Obama administration, a two-point disparity was permitted, meaning that a plan could cover 68% of the costs and still qualify as a silver plan.

With Trump’s proposed changes to the Affordable Care Act, the disparity has been increased from 2% to 4%. Plans with only 66% coverage would still qualify as a silver plan.

It gives insurers a little more room to vary their plan terms,” Rylands says.

He adds that although there’s the potential for higher deductibles or out-of-pocket costs, the fact that the proposal extends it by only 2 percentage points means those increases will not be significant.

Already, Americans are showing they’re willing to pay for a plan with high deductibles in order to save money on premiums.

Over the last two years, enrollment in high-deductible health plans with a savings option by workers with employee-sponsored health insurance has increased 8 percentage points, to 29%, according to the 2016 Employee Health Benefits Survey by Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research and Educational Trust.

The survey found average premiums for those plans were “considerably lower” than the average for all plan types, at $5,762 for single coverage and $16,737 for family coverage.

4. You may have to be a bit more on the ball to enroll

The Trump administration’s proposal would cut the open enrollment period, typically three months, in half.

Under the new guidelines, those who need to enroll in health care for 2018 would have from between Nov. 1 and Dec. 15, 2017. Insurance coverage will end on Dec. 31, 2017, for all participants, no matter their enrollment date.

Not only would the open enrollment period be shorter, but the president has already slashed the advertising budget for Obamacare. Upon taking office, Trump cut $5 million in advertising days before the Jan. 31, 2017, enrollment deadline.

Enroll America, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that serves as the nation’s leading health care enrollment coalition, criticized the decision and its timing during the critical final days of the enrollment period for 2017. In a January statement, Anne Filipic, president of Enroll America, said, “their decision to halt outreach will have real impact on real people’s lives.”

Also last week, the Trump administration announced plans to place more stringent guidelines for the special enrollment period, in an effort to reduce the number of consumers registering outside the open enrollment period. For 2017, the enrollment period ran from Nov. 1, 2016, to Jan. 31, 2017.

The special enrollment period was originally meant for people who experience unexpected changes, such as unemployment, a new baby, or moving states. The Affordable Care Act allows consumers to enroll and submit proof later that they qualify for the special enrollment.

Insurance agencies have found that people signing up under the special enrollment period have higher health care costs, leading agencies to believe that Americans are signing up when already sick.

Under the proposed revisions, consumers will be required to provide proof before signing up for special enrollment.

Your providers could change

Proposed changes to the Affordable Care Act will also remove federal review of insurance networks. The networks were created by the Obama administration in response to complaints that there were too few providers accepting insurance policies purchased in the exchange.

The requirement for a minimum number of providers within a set distance from enrollees could be removed.

While this could reduce consumers’ access to health care within a reasonable distance, Rylands is hopeful it could allow more health insurance companies to continue providing services on the exchange.

“We’ll just have to wait and see if that happens though,” Rylands says.

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Featured, Investing, News

Should My Spouse and I Have the Same Investments?

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One of the golden rules of investing is not to have all of your eggs in one basket. This is pretty easy to do when you’re planning by yourself. It can get complicated when you are married. Should you both have the same investments or is it better to do something different?

Unlike combining checking accounts or getting a joint credit card, combining your investment goals and objectives with your spouse is a bit more complex. Legally, it is not possible to combine retirement accounts like a 401(k) or IRA. However, it is possible to align your retirement saving strategy. Typically these are the biggest investment accounts, and how you choose your investments will determine your level of financial freedom during retirement. Before you sit down with your spouse (possibly with help from a professional financial adviser) to determine how you can both approach your savings in order to maximize your joint benefit, it’s important to consider these things first.

Before you align your investments, start by aligning your investment goals

Before deciding on what investments you may need, you and your spouse should figure out your investment goals. If you’re around the same age, do you both plan on retiring at the same time? If there is a significant gap in age, there is a chance that one of you could be working much longer than the other, and your investments should reflect that.

A common example could be shown with target-date funds (TDFs). Currently, TDFs are offered by 70% of 401(k) plans, and they give investors the ability to invest according to the year they plan on retiring. Someone planning to retire in 2040 would choose the 2040 target-date fund. If you and your spouse are the same age, it would be OK to invest in the same TDF. But if one of you is choosing to retire in 2040 and the other in 2030, it may be in your best interest to choose funds that correspond to your individual goals instead.

Even if you don’t choose TDFs, your investment choices should be based primarily on your tolerance for risk and the amount of time you estimate working before you retire (also known as time horizon). If you and your spouse have different risk levels, then you should definitely have different investments.

If the younger spouse earns significantly less income, this presents a special challenge best left to a financial planner. A discrepancy in income would directly affect the amount you’re able to save and how it is allocated. In some cases you may have to adjust your allocation to compensate. Again, because there are several individual factors which could affect your investment decisions in this specific situation, you will want the guidance of a financial planner.

Understand diversification and asset allocation

The concepts of diversification and asset allocation are the cornerstones of sound investing. By diversifying your assets, you are spreading out your risk over several different types of assets, rather than simply owning one or two. This is why mutual funds have become extremely popular. Because mutual funds consist of a broad range of investments across the stock and bond market, they provide instant diversification. But it may not be necessary or helpful for you and your spouse to own different mutual funds in hopes of diversifying yourselves even more.

Sometimes it is best to keep things simple. You and your spouse could own the same investments but in different proportions.

For example, the two of you may decide to own Mutual Fund A, which is made up of stocks, and Mutual Fund B, which is made up of bonds. Because you’re older and more conservative, you may choose to invest in a portfolio that is split down the middle: 50% in Mutual Fund A and 50% in Mutual Fund B. Your spouse, especially if they are much younger, may choose a more risky asset mix, investing in a mix of 75% Fund A and 25% Fund B. Both of you would still own the same investments but own different amounts due to your preference for risk.

Additionally, if you invest consistently in funds from the same investment firm, such as Franklin Templeton Investments, MFS, or American Funds, you could qualify for discounts after investing a certain amount called breakpoints. Most companies will charge you a percentage to invest in the fund. For example, if you invest $10,000 consistently every year, you could be charged 2.25% or $225. When you hit a breakpoint, however, the fee goes down. After 10 years, you’ve invested $100,000 and anything you put in after this point will be 1.75%. Instead of paying $225 on every $10,000 you invest each year, you would now pay $175 until you hit the next breakpoint. Every company has their own breakpoint levels and fees they charge, which can vary wildly depending on the type of fund and philosophy of the company.

Most experts agree that it is better to choose a few mutual funds with one fund manager and take advantage of the breakpoints rather than choose one fund from several different managers. Using more than one manager can also make it more difficult to track your investment performance.

The Bottom Line

If you and your spouse are the same age and plan to retire around the same time, you should be OK holding the same investments, assuming they are solid investment choices. But if your age difference is more than three years, this should be reflected in your separate portfolios.

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6 Questions to Ask Before You Use Jewelry Store Financing

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6 Questions to Ask Before You Use Jewelry Store Financing

This Valentine’s Day, U.S. consumers were projected to spend a collective $182 billion on fancy dinners, cards, flowers, and other gifts for their loved ones, according to the National Retail Federation. Jewelry retailers can expect to receive a sizable chunk of that spending. One in five Americans said they’d give jewelry as a gift to their significant other this Valentine’s Day, totaling an expected $4.3 billion spent nationwide.

If you can’t afford to pay for a large jewelry purchase out of pocket, most jewelry retailers are more than happy to let you finance it with a store credit card. But beware: Diamonds might be “a girl’s best friend,” but a jewelry store retailer isn’t always looking out for your best interest. As you would with financing any large purchase, you should thoroughly evaluate your decision before you sign on.

Here are 6 questions to ask before you finance through a jewelry store.

What happens if I can’t pay off my balance before the promotional period ends?

Low-interest or 0% financing promotions for jewelers typically last from 6 to 18 months. You may be tempted to wait to make payments until some time goes by. But if you don’t start making payments right away, you may find yourself with a balance even after the promotional period ends. And that can spell trouble for your finances. Some financing offers include “deferred interest” clauses, which means if you even owe $1 after the 0% period ends, they will charge you interest from the beginning.

Take online fine jewelry seller Blue Nile, for example. Right now, the company has a promotion for 0% financing for 6 or 12 months, depending on how much you spend. Deep in the company’s terms, a deferred interest clause is buried, warning shoppers that “interest will be charged to your account from the purchase date if the purchase balance is not paid in full” by the end of the period or if you make a late payment.

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Other jewelers may offer a low promotional rate for a certain period but will raise the annual percentage rate (APR) if you aren’t able to pay the balance in full by then. For example, the Zales credit card starts off with a low 9.99% APR if you make a minimum purchase of $1,500 and pay it off within 36 months. But if you can’t pay it off by then, they will triple your rate, making it 29.40%.

Can I afford my monthly payments?

Do the math to find out what your monthly payments will be and how long you’ll need to pay back the loan. If it looks like it’s going to be a struggle to pay the loan back before your promotional period ends, you’re probably borrowing more than you can really afford and you’re asking for trouble — especially if there’s a deferred interest clause.

If you really want to do it to finance the purchase, make sure it’s something that you can pay off within the promotional period. To save money, try comparing prices at several different retailers, opting for a more modest precious gem instead of a diamond or using a grandparent’s ring instead.

What’s in the fine print?

Some jewelers may require a down payment in order to qualify for a 0% financing offer. For example, Kay Jewelers charges a 20% minimum down payment for their 12-month 0% interest financing plan. Zales offers 6 months of financing interest free if you open up a credit card for a minimum purchase of $150, but that period extends to 18 months for purchases of $3,000 or more.

You don’t want to be surprised by any fees either. Some retailers will charge a transaction fee simply for processing your payment. Zales doesn’t charge a transaction fee for people taking advantage of 6-month or 36-month financing, but it tacks on a $9.95 transaction fee for their 12-month and 18-month interest-free tiers.

Look closely for any maintenance fees like annual fees charged for each year you have the card open, or penalty fees for late or returned payments.

Are there any warranties or insurance policies?

You’re making a large purchase that you can’t afford out of pocket, so you’ll want to protect yourself in case the jewelry is lost or damaged. Many retailers, like Jared or Kay Jewelers, offer lifetime diamond and gem warranties that cover cleaning and repair, although you may have to meet certain requirements to maintain a warranty.

To maintain a Zales Lifetime Diamond Commitment or Jared’s Lifetime Diamond & Color Gemstone Guarantee, for example, you need to take the piece to a store for cleaning and inspection every six months. You’ll need to bring your inspection history with you when you go, and the warranty doesn’t cover making any repairs. You could void your warranty if you don’t keep up or if you don’t make the suggested repairs.

Some plans offer additional protection plans to cover theft. Zales offers a lifetime jewelry protection plan with theft replacement for the first two years. To use it, you’ll need to bring in a police report and proof of purchase, but the warranty is void if a family member steals your jewelry.

You could forgo the jeweler’s insurance for your own, however, and tack the piece onto your home or renter’s insurance plan as a ‘jewelry rider’ for a few dollars more each month.

What’s the return policy?

Not to be a killjoy, but what if you break up with your significant other before you get a chance to give them the gift? What if they don’t like it or — even crazier — the salesperson was just really good and after the purchase you decide you don’t like the jewelry you picked out? You’ll need to make a return, and you’ll want to make sure you get your money back.

Ask about the company’s return policy related to in-store financing. You’ll want to know what the period is to make a return or exchange, as they may differ, and when you’ll see the charge removed from your account. Keep in mind, many jewelers won’t let you return specially made or engraved jewelry; however, some, like Blue Nile, make an exception for rings.

If you’re returning an online purchase, ask about any extra fees you may need to pay, such as shipping or insurance for the jewelry.

Do I get any perks?

If you frequent a particular jeweler, you may be interested in what perks you’ll get from opening a store credit card. For example, Zales cardholders benefit from exclusive coupons, reminders for jewelry inspection and cleaning, and an automatic $50 off birthday purchases $200 and higher.

Sometimes, these perks may not be worth the hassle of signing up for a high-interest credit card or financing deal. Compare the dollar value of the perks to the amount you’ll pay in interest and fees down the road.

Alternatives to Jewelry Store Financing

Friends and family

Reach out to your network of close friends and family to see if you can get a more flexible, interest-free loan. To demonstrate responsibility, you may want to create a contract with payment terms and set a date for when you’ll pay the loan back in full. Warning: Only do this if you’re certain you can pay off the loan quickly to avoid harming your relationship with the lender.

Credit cards

Jewelry store cards generally charge high interest rates, so you might find a more competitive offer with a traditional bank or major credit card issuer.

If you can qualify for a credit card with a longer promotional 0% interest offer, or one with a lower interest rate after the promotional period ends, you may be better off putting the jewelry purchase on it. Depending on the card you choose, you might even be able to earn points or cash back rewards for your purchase.

A bonus tip: If you decide to open a store card but aren’t 100% sure you’ll be able to pay off the balance before the promotional period ends, you could make payments until the period is over, then transfer the remaining balance over to a balance transfer card to avoid paying interest.

Personal loan

If you don’t want to open up a credit card, a personal loan can be an alternative way to finance the purchase, although you won’t benefit from an interest-free promotional period.

Rates on personal loans range from as low as 4% with good credit to as high as 36%. On the other hand, with personal loans you’ll have a fixed interest rate and a fixed repayment term, so you’ll know exactly how much you’ll pay each month and when you’ll pay off the purchase.

You can apply for a personal loan through your bank, or leverage technology and try peer-to-peer lending through sites like Upstart, Lending Club, or SoFi.

The Final Word

Financing a large jewelry purchase may be convenient, but it may not be your most cost-efficient option, especially if you’re not sure you’ll be able to pay off the card before the 0% interest promotional period runs out.

If you’re planning to pop the question soon, remember: the engagement ring and all of the traditions surrounding it are a relatively new construct of modern-day romance. You don’t have to prove your love and commitment to your spouse with a huge, expensive ring.

 

 

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Featured, Life Events, News

Now You Can Pay for Uber and Lyft Rides With Your Commuter Benefits

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Now You Can Pay for Uber and Lyft Rides With Your Commuter Benefits

Ride-share users, your employee commuter benefits package just got a little better. Earlier this year, Lyft became the latest ride-sharing app to give riders the chance to pay using employee commuter benefits.

That means riders can now use pre-tax dollars to pay for Lyft rides the same way commuter benefits can be used to cover transit costs or parking expenses. Lyft isn’t the first ride-sharing app to add commuter benefits — Uber beat them to it back in August — but Lyft’s addition of commuter benefits signals a trend that could save big-city commuters time and money on the way to work each day.

Right now, it’s not possible for workers to use commuter benefits to pay for regular cabs — including regular Uber or Lyft rides. But Uber and Lyft found a clever way around this. Benefits can be used when riders select Lyft Line or uberPOOL, the apps’ carpooling options.

If you’re curious about this benefit and whether or not it’s worth linking your Uber or Lyft account to your commuter benefit account, we’ve got you covered.

What are commuter benefits?

Commuter benefits are an employer-provided benefits program that lets you set aside pre-tax dollars in an account to be used for your commute costs. Employees can use these benefits to pay for public transportation — trains, subways, buses, even parking passes — used on their daily commute with pre-tax dollars. The amount of money you set aside to pay for your commute doesn’t count as income, so you’re not taxed on it.

Which benefits programs are included?

Each ride-hailing service has partnered with select benefits programs, although there is some overlap. For example, if your company’s benefits package is with Zenefits or TransitChek, you can use them with Lyft, but not with Uber. On the other hand, if you are with EdenRed or Ameriflex, you can only pay with your benefits on the Uber app. The lucky commuters with benefits under WageWorks, Benefit Resource and Navia can use their benefits on either rideshare app.

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How do I sign up for commuter benefits?

Workers have to sign up for commuter benefits in order to receive them. You will be asked to select how much money you want to set aside from your paycheck each month to cover your transportation costs.

Once you’re enrolled, you may receive a benefits card (it can be used like a regular debit or credit card) to make transportation purchases. Otherwise, you can purchase transportation expenses using your regular credit or debit card and then submit a claim to be reimbursed through your benefit provider.

Reach out to your employer’s human resources department to find out how to take advantage of your commuter benefits program.

How much can I really save?

Depending on your current tax bracket, you could have up to 40% more to spend on your commute. For example, if you’re in the 35% tax bracket and contribute $200 each month to your commuter benefits account, you’re getting an extra $70 to spend on your commute each month. That’s an extra $840 per year.

But here’s the catch: Commuter benefits contributions are capped at $255 per month. So if you are already relying on your benefits to finance your monthly subway pass or parking garage expenses, you may not have much left over to use on Lyft or Uber rides.

What are Lyft Line and uberPOOL?

To use commuter benefits to pay for Lyft or Uber rides, you have to select the apps’ carpooling options — either Lyft Line or uberPOOL. Carpool vehicles seat six or more passengers. Both Uber and Lyft use algorithms to place riders going toward the same area together. Because you’re carpooling, however, you may or may not have a shorter commute, depending on traffic in your city and how many other riders get picked up or dropped off during your trip.

How to use commuter benefits on Lyft

First, you need to add your commuter benefits card to your profile.

  1. When you open the Lyft app, tap “Payment” in the left-hand side menu to see your payment options.

  2. Select “Add credit card,” enter your commuter benefits card information, and save. The card will have a “Commuter” distinction.
  3. Next, set the card as your default payment method. There are two ways to do this:
    1. Select the card as your default payment method for your personal profile under the “payment defaults” section in the “Payment” menu.
    2. When you open the app, set your location and destination. You’ll then see the last four digits of the card is being used to pay for the trip. Tap the numbers to change your payment method to your commuter benefits card. You should see a rectangular icon with a diamond in its center when using your benefits card.
    3. Select “Lyft Line & Ride.”
      You can only use your benefits to pay for carpools under Lyft Line. Select the pooling option to be matched with a car with six or more seats, and you’ll be all set.

How to use commuter benefits on Uber

Add your commuter benefits card to your profile by going to the left-hand menu and adding your commuter benefits card under “Payment.” You can also add the card after setting your location and destination under uberPOOL, shown below.

Tap on your card information to set or add your commuter card as a payment option.

Your benefits can only be used to pay for carpools under uberPOOL. Select the pooling option to be matched with a car with six or more seats, and you’ll be good to go.

Pros

Using pre-tax dollars saves you up to 40%

The most obvious perk of using your commuter benefit is that you’re using pre-tax dollars, so your dollar goes up to 40% further. If you’re already paying out of pocket for your commute, this could be a huge benefit.

Cut back on driving

If you drive to work, a 2014 Trulia analysis found you likely spend about 30 minutes in the car each way. If it’s more affordable for you to use a ride-sharing app, you can use that time to read or catch up on work or a nap while you ride.

Reduce your carbon footprint

Legally, commuter benefits can only be used with efforts to reduce your commuter footprint, so ride-sharing counts only when you’re placed in a car that seats six or more passengers. If you drive to work, this cuts down your footprint and takes the hassle out of organizing a carpool.

Cons

Lyft Line or uberPOOL only

You may want to put your pre-tax dollars elsewhere if you’re not into making new friends each morning. You’ll be placed in a vehicle that seats six or more people when you use your benefits card, and other riders may have various personality types.

Limit on contribution

Your contribution is limited to $255 a month, which may or may not be a month’s worth of commuting, depending on how much your commute costs. For example, a LendingTree analysis found the average monthly cost of commuting with Uber’s non-pool service UberX in New York City is more than $700. Still, $255 pre-tax will help cut down on your monthly spending for the trip to work.

Only available in select major cities

The apps’ commuter benefits options are only available in select major cities so far. Here’s a breakdown of where you can use yours.

Lyft: New York City, Boston, Seattle, and Miami

Uber: New York City, Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Denver, Atlanta, Miami, Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, and New Jersey (state).

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Featured, Health, News

Facing a Medical Debt Lawsuit? Take These 10 Steps First

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Facing a Medical Debt Lawsuit? Take These 10 Steps First

If you’ve ever been sued by a debt collector or service provider over medical debt, you know how stressful it can be. If you couldn’t afford to pay the original debt, you likely still can’t afford it. And if you want to defend yourself, you’ll have to face the additional time and cost of going to court, too.

You should know that you’re not alone. According to staff attorney Chi Chi Wu of the National Consumer Law Center, when you look at debt collection items on credit reports in America, “half of those items are from medical debt. Not credit cards. Not auto loans. Medical debt.”

You may be tempted to ignore the suit since you know you can’t pay, but Wu advises against inaction.

“Always show up,” she says. “Never ignore a lawsuit. If you ignore it, the debt collector or service provider on the other side automatically wins by default.”

What happens when you show up, though? Here are four steps to take if you’re facing a medical debt lawsuit.

1. Find Out Where the Debt Comes From

You cannot properly address your lawsuit if you don’t understand where the debt comes from. If you look back at your past bills, you should be able to find a date of service and itemized list of services rendered with associated costs.

You may be in debt because you’re uninsured, but even insured patients end up in this boat thanks in part to a rise in high-deductible health plans. Mistakes can happen as well. If a patient visits an in-network hospital, but is unknowingly seen by an out-of-network doctor, they can be charged out-of-network fees. Doctors are independent contractors, so while the hospital may be affiliated with your insurance company, that doesn’t mean your service provider is inherently in-network.

2. Don’t ignore the lawsuit

In most consumer debt cases, consumers don’t have an attorney at all. But hiring an attorney to advise you can be a wise move. It doesn’t have to cost a fortune either, Wu says.

Most lawyers will provide a free consult before taking you on as a client. In this consult, they may be able to help you find your bearings so you can represent yourself.

Wu recommends seeking help from the Legal Services Corporation, a government-supervised nonprofit that provides legal representation at a low cost to low-income households. You can also seek help from nonprofit legal assistance firms in your area.

If you’re uninsured, one way to keep the case from going to court is to contact the doctor or debt collector immediately to negotiate your bill down to Medicaid/Medicare prices — which are often 2-3 times less than that of the gross price you were billed. When a provider refuses to negotiate down to these lower rates, it is called “discriminatory pricing,” and your legal counsel may recommend using it as a defense in court.

3. Prepare for Court

The first thing you must do is prepare an answer to the lawsuit, including any defenses or countersuits that you want to raise. This will involve filing paperwork at the court, mailing paperwork, and showing up on your initial court date. Again, it’s advisable to get a lawyer to help you through this, or at least get a consult. The National Association of Consumer Advocates has a helpful video explainer on preparing to defend a medical debt lawsuit.

It’s important to make this initial court date. It is very unlikely the judge will grant you a continuance that would move the court date further out.

There are some exceptions to this. If you are being sued in a state in which you no longer reside, it’s easier to mount a defense if you can’t appear in court. In fact, appearing in court could work against you, demonstrating to the court that you have no problem traveling to and from court out of state.

If you’ve been served in a state outside of your own, it is very important to get legal representation.

This is because you must answer the suit, but you must also do so in a way that does not imply that you are submitting to that court’s jurisdiction over you. The process is one that is best handled by someone trained in law.

After you answer the suit, the court will set a date for the discovery part of the trial. You will have to file more paperwork with the court before this date so that you are able to present evidence that you are not liable for the debt.

4. Understand Wage Garnishment

If you are found liable for the debt, or you fail to answer the lawsuit and the judge rules against you, the court may issue an order giving the lender or collection agency the ability to garnish your wages. By federal law, they cannot leave you with less than 75% of your income or $217.50 per week — whichever is greater. State law may protect you even further.

Medical debt collectors are able to garnish your wages, but they cannot garnish Social Security benefits, disability insurance payments, unemployment insurance payments, VA benefits, pension distributions, child support payments, or public assistance benefits. If you have any of these forms of income, it’s wise to set up a different bank account where those funds are deposited and keep all garnishable wages in another separate account.

You should do this because a court order can go after your bank account balances, too. While that doesn’t make it legal to take money that came from any of these protected sources, separate bank accounts will make the incidence of errors smaller — saving you headaches and potential victimization.

5. Know Your Rights

When it comes to medical billing and debts, you do have rights as a patient. Make sure you understand them so you can lower or eliminate your bill before or after you’ve been sued.

Were You Served Properly?

Sometimes wages are garnished before the plaintiff is even aware that there’s a lawsuit against them. This happens most commonly when you’re improperly served. Examples of using “improperly served” as a legal defense include papers being only mailed to you and not delivered in person, papers being left at an incorrect residence, or papers being mailed to an old address. Being “improperly served” does not mean that the papers were left with a family member or friend at your residence and they forgot to tell you about it. If that happened, you’re still on the hook.

If you have been improperly served, or if you find out that the court mistakenly started garnishing wages because you have the same name as an actual plaintiff, you should contact a lawyer immediately to figure out what possible recourses there may be for your specific situation.

6. Get Low-Cost or Free Help from Financial Assistance Programs

In 2016, about 58% of community hospitals in the U.S. were not-for-profit, according to the American Hospital Association. This gives them tax-exempt status, but also obligates them to give back to their communities. Under the Affordable Care Act, these hospitals must provide some type of financial assistance program to low-income patients. Even if you aren’t from a low-income household, you should apply, as some hospitals extend their programs far beyond the poverty line. Many hospitals also extend this program to insured patients.

These hospitals have an obligation to let you know about their financial assistance programs within four months of when your bill has been issued.

You have until eight months after the initial bill was issued to apply for financial assistance. You have the right to do this even if the debt has been sold to a third-party collector, and even if that collector is the one suing you in court.

7. Be Aware of Discriminatory Pricing

We’ve already touched on the fact that you can try to negotiate your medical bills down to Medicaid/Medicare prices. If you are being sued in court and are uninsured, discriminatory pricing can serve as a defense. If you qualify for the hospital’s financial assistance program, they legally must reduce your bill to the amount generally billed to insured patients.

8. Look Out for Balance Billing

Balance billing happens when your hospital or medical provider bills you instead of or in addition to Medicaid or Medicare. It’s a forbidden practice, and you are not responsible for any amounts due when this happens.

You may be able to identity balance billing if you receive an “Explanation of Benefits” from your insurer that states the amount they covered and the amount you still owe. If this does not match the bill your medical provider sent you, there is a cause for concern. Additionally, if the bill you receive does not show any payment from your insurance when you are, in fact, on Medicaid or Medicare, it may be a sign that you are a victim of balance billing.

9. Stop Lawsuits Before They Begin

If something about your bill doesn’t look quite right, there are ways to reduce it to its fair amount.

First of all, make sure the hospital didn’t make an error that resulted in a larger bill. One way this could happen is if something they did caused you to have to stay in the hospital an extra night, inflating your costs beyond what they should have been originally.

Another good avenue to pursue is to have your bill examined by a medical bill advocate. They’re familiar with coding and laws that you’re not, making them the perfect people to review your charges. You may find one in your community by asking around, or you can start your search with the National Association of Healthcare Advocacy Consultants.

Debt collectors, hospitals, and other medical providers don’t want to take you to court. It costs them money, and the odds of them actually getting a full payment at that point are very low. They are almost always willing to work with you before issuing a lawsuit. Negotiate. Apply for financial assistance. Set up zero-interest payment plans directly with your health care provider.

Keep the lines of communication open so that no one ends up with the additional costs of litigation.

10. Weigh Bankruptcy

At any point in this process, you can choose to file for bankruptcy. Filing for bankruptcy may alleviate the medical debt. Just be cautious. Bankruptcy is not a decision that should be made lightly, as it will remain on your credit report for up to 10 years and make it difficult to qualify for new credit.

There are two types of bankruptcy: Chapter 7 and Chapter 13. Chapter 7 requires you to sell off all of your assets to settle what you can of your debt obligations. If you don’t have any or many assets, that aspect of it doesn’t matter much. What will matter is that the debt will essentially disappear after you file.

If you file for Chapter 13, you do not have to sell off any assets, but the debt won’t disappear either. Instead, you’ll be put on a 3-5 year payment plan in order to settle.

This may make sense if the court has already issued an order against your wages, but at any other point in your case, it would make more sense to try to set up a payment plan with the medical service provider or debt collection agency directly. Their last resort is wage garnishment. Don’t let it get that far. Know your rights so you can negotiate with them effectively rather than damaging your credit report through Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

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What Could Happen if Trump Rolls Back The Dodd-Frank Act

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What Could Happen if Trump Rolls Back The Dodd-Frank Act

The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act has been seen by many as legislation that helped dig the American economy out of the Great Recession by putting strict limitations on banks. Banks had to rein in their high-risk mortgage practices and meet stricter lending requirements.

President Donald Trump has begun the process to roll back parts of the legislation, which could eliminate the restrictions that banks had faced under Dodd-Frank. As recently as Feb. 3, Trump told business executives at the White House, “We expect to be cutting a lot out of Dodd-Frank, because, frankly, I have so many people, friends of mine that have nice businesses that can’t borrow money, they just can’t get any money because the banks just won’t let them borrow because of the rules and regulations in Dodd-Frank.”

The executive order that Trump signed on Feb. 3 asks for a review of Dodd-Frank. Many of Dodd-Frank’s key provisions can’t be undone without legislation, and Democrats have vowed to do all they can to protect the law; however, with a Republican-controlled Congress, there is a possibility of dismantling the legislation.

Consumers and small business owners could feel the impact of Dodd-Frank’s potential rollback in three key ways.

Relaxed lending standards.

The subprime mortgage lending phenomenon caused a surge in defaults when the housing market crashed about a decade ago. Nearly 9.3 million homeowners experienced a foreclosure, short sold, or received a deed in lieu of foreclosure between 2006 and 2014, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Some legal experts worry that a rollback of Dodd-Frank could expose homeowners to the same lending risks they faced prior to the financial crisis.

“If Dodd-Frank is repealed, homeowners should expect to see a return to the ‘anything goes’ days of the 1990s and early 2000s,” says David Reiss, a law professor at Brooklyn (N.Y.) Law School. “There will likely to be a loosening of credit, but also a return to some predatory practices in some parts of the mortgage market,” he says.

When signed by President Barack Obama in 2010, the Dodd-Frank law created several government agencies, including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). The CFPB, which was tasked with protecting consumers by regulating complaints, conducting investigations, and filing suits against companies that break the law, created the Ability to Repay and the Qualified Mortgage rules. The rules were meant to ensure that banks and mortgage lenders were only issuing loans to homebuyers who could reasonably afford to repay them.

“These are really rules that require lenders to pay attention to who their borrower is, to make sure their borrower can pay back a loan,” Reiss explains. “It sounds kind of silly to have a rule to tell lenders to make sure borrowers can pay back their loan, but before the financial crisis, it was pretty common.”

One of the popular ways to entice subprime mortgage borrowers before the recession was to offer teaser rates. Teaser rates, Reiss explains, made a mortgage appear affordable in its first six months or 12 months, with low rates and low monthly payments. Once the promotional period was up, the rates and payments would skyrocket.

The subprime mortgages and other loans with higher risk for consumers, which can be profitable to banks, had much higher rates of default, Reiss says.

Dodd-Frank legislators originally reduced and prohibited these exotic terms in order to suppress the turbulent market at the time. Repealing Dodd-Frank and its restrictions will not only bring back lenders’ old habits but return the market to a more volatile state, says Reiss.

While the potential abolishment of Dodd-Frank may be a shame in terms of the loss of consumer protections, there is a bright side, says Paul Hynes, a certified financial planner and CEO of HearthStone, a wealth management firm based in San Diego, Calif. Many lenders have complained that heightened regulations have only increased their costs and made it tougher for consumers to get access to much-needed financing. Since the recession, the homeownership rate in the U.S. has declined by 4.7%, from 68.4% in 2007 to 63.75% in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“The increased cost of compliance with Dodd-Frank may also go away,” Hynes says, “reducing the drag on the economy caused by these costs, and perhaps stimulating economic growth, higher wages, and overall increase in the standard of living for all Americans.”

Possible benefits for small banks and businesses.

The rollback of Dodd-Frank should have a positive impact on small banks that have felt the effect of the regulations much more heavily than their larger Wall Street and corporate counterparts, says John Gugle, a certified financial planner with Alpha Financial Advisors in Charlotte, N.C.

The costs of complying with Dodd-Frank for banks totaled more than $10.4 billion and 73 million hours in paperwork in 2016, according to the American Action Forum, a conservative nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C.

Small banks, which used to be an engine for loan growth in their communities, have struggled with the costs to comply with Dodd-Frank, says Gugle, a member of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA) policy committee.

“If you’re a small lender, and having to meet these increasingly rigorous regulations, you don’t have enough money or resources to throw at it,” Reiss says. “So I think the regulatory burden is felt more by the smaller institutions who are just trying to manage to keep the doors open.”

The Dodd-Frank rollback could make it easier for small business owners to qualify for small business loans. Since the recession, lending to small business owners has declined by 17%, according to U.S. Small Business Administration research. While larger banks have focused traditionally on investment and corporate banking, smaller banks have been a primary source of loans to local communities and businesses, and they were hardest hit by the recession.

“For smaller community banks, the increased compliance and regulatory costs have impeded their ability to lend,” Gugle says. “By lowering the regulatory burden, it would make it more cost effective for banks to make loans, but I am careful to point out that small businesses will still need to meet the stringent borrower requirements that banks will impose.”

Another recession? Not likely.

While many financiers and officials have advocated for the repeal of Dodd-Frank, the public is hesitant to remove the restraints on American banks.

In a survey of more than 1,000 people, California-based Personal Capital Advisors Corp. found that 84% were supportive of efforts to protect consumers’ financial rights and concerned about the lack of protections without Dodd-Frank.

Experts agree that a repeal will likely lead to risk-taking by banks, but contend that a recession is not immediately imminent.

If Dodd-Frank is repealed, Hynes, a NAPFA member, says he thinks the U.S. initially will see a “more robust economy, more jobs, and higher economic growth rates.”

“The U.S. economy experienced solid growth, punctuated by occasional, more ‘normal’ recessions, from the end of the Great Depression, about 1940, until 2007 — without massive legislative imposition such as Dodd-Frank,” Hynes says.

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21% of Divorcées Cite Money as the Cause of Their Divorce, MagnifyMoney Survey Shows

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Magnifymoney - Divorce and Debt Survey

In MagnifyMoney’s 2017 Divorce and Debt Survey, we polled a national sample of 500 divorced U.S. adults to understand how money played into the end of their relationship.

Here are our key findings:

AMONG ALL SURVEY RESPONDENTS

More money = more problems

Among all respondents, 21% cited money as the cause of their divorce.

In fact, the more money a respondent earned, they more likely they were to cite money as the cause of their divorce.

Among people who earned $100,000 or more, 33% cited money as the cause of their divorce.

By contrast, only 25% of people who earned $50,000 to $99,999 cited money as the cause of their divorce. And the lowest income-earners, those earning $50,000 and under, were the least likely to say money was the cause of their divorce at just 18%.

Money might cause more stress for younger couples

While rates of divorce rose along with the amount of a couple’s’ earnings, the opposite seemed to be true when it came to age. Younger couples reported that financial issues drove them to divorce, while the rate went down for older couples.

  • Among 25-44 year olds: 24% cited money as the cause of their divorce
  • Among 45-64 year olds: 20% cited money as the cause of their divorce
  • Among those 65 and over: 18% cited money as the cause of their divorce

AMONG SURVEY RESPONDENTS WHO CITED MONEY AS THE REASON FOR THEIR DIVORCE…

Divorce often led to debt 

AMONG SURVEY RESPONDENTS WHO CITED MONEY AS THE REASON FOR THEIR DIVORCE

Between legal fees, paying for your own expenses instead of sharing the burden with a partner, and other costs that come up when you choose to end a marriage, divorce gets expensive. For couples who already faced financial problems, the added expense often meant getting into even more debt.

Well over half (59%) of respondents who cited money as the cause of their divorce also said they went into debt because of their divorce. And a whopping 60% said their credit score fell after the divorce. By comparison, just 36% of the total survey group said they went into debt because their divorce, and only 37% said their credit score suffered.

Among those who cited money as the cause of their divorce…

  • 2% of respondents said they got away with $500 or less in debt.
  • 13% said they racked up debts of $500 to $4,999.
  • 14% said they took on between $10,000 and $19,999 worth of debt
  • 23% said they owed $20,000 or more

Among all survey respondents…

  • 2% were less than $500 in debt
  • 8% were $500 to $4,999 in debt
  • 6% were $5,000 to $9,999 in debt
  • 8% were $10,000 to $19,999 in debt
  • 12% were $20,000 or more in debt

Overspending was the biggest source of tension

Overspending was the biggest source of tension

Nearly one-third (30%) of those who said that money was the reason for their divorce also said overspending was the most common problem they faced. Overspending can easily add up to carrying credit balances when the cash runs out — and in fact, credit card debt was the second most common money problem these respondents cited.

Bad credit was also a problem, along with other types of debt like medical and student loan debt. Most financial issues seemed to stem from bad cash flow habits, however. Only 3% said bad investments caused trouble within their relationships.

Financial infidelity was rampant

Financial infidelity was rampant

When overspending and debt become issues within a marriage, partners may feel compelled to hide mistakes and bad money habits from each other. In fact, 56% of survey respondents who said money was the reason for their divorce also admitted that they or their spouse lied about money or hid information from the other person. By comparison, just 33% of all divorcees surveyed said they lied or were lied to about money during their marriage.

Among the survey respondents who cited money as the cause of divorce…

  • 37% said their spouse lied to them about money
  • 8% said they lied to their spouse about money
  • 10% reported that they both lied to each other.

Among all survey respondents…

  • 24% said they their spouse lied about money
  • 3% said they lied to their spouse about money
  • 5% said they both lied about money

Most would rather keep separate bank accounts

Separation of finances

With financial stress causing trouble in relationships, it’s not too surprising that 57% of people who cited money as the cause of their divorce said married couples should maintain separate bank accounts. Forty-three percent maintained that within a marriage, couples should keep joint accounts — even though their marriages ended in divorce.

Most failed to keep a budget

Budgeting and divorce

A whopping 70% of respondents who said their marriages ended due to money said they didn’t stick to a budget during their marriage. A budget is such a simple tool, but one that’s essential to tracking cash flow and understanding where money comes from — and goes.

Most don’t believe prenups are necessary

Prenups and divorce
Dealing with divorce is never easy, especially when financial problems caused the separation and continue to plague couples after the paperwork is signed thanks to new debts.

Still, 58% of survey respondents whose marriage ended in divorce due to money said they didn’t think couples should get a prenuptial agreement before tying the knot.

How to deal with your finances after divorce

Here are a few tips to help you get back on your feet, financially speaking, once your divorce is finalized:

Recognize your bad money habits. Money issues can negatively impact a relationship, and even cause it to end. But they can hurt you as an individual, too.

Create a budget. Remember, most people whose marriage ended due to financial stresses didn’t keep a budget during their relationship. Doing so now will help you stay on top of your money and know exactly where it goes. That will allow you to make better spending decisions and help prevent taking on even more debt.

Don’t make major money decisions right away. If you just finalized your divorce, you may feel like you need to make major changes or choices right away. But take a moment to slow down and give yourself time to heal. You shouldn’t make emotional decisions with your money — and going through a divorce is an emotional time. Wait until you can think more clearly and rationally before doing anything with your assets, cash, or career.

Money should not be your therapy. Because divorce can do a number on you, mentally and emotionally, you may need help with the healing process. But that does not mean retail therapy! It’s tempting to spend on material things in an effort to make yourself feel better, but any happiness you feel from shopping sprees is temporary and fleeting. It can also leave you into even more debt. Put away your credit cards, stick to cash, and use your budget to guide you.

Work to rebuild your credit. 60% of people reported their divorce hurt their credit. If your credit suffered too, take steps to rebuild it. Pay down debts, make all payments on time and in full, and don’t continue to carry balances on credit cards. Try to avoid taking out too many new loans or lines of credit all at once.

You should also work through this checklist of important actions to take after your divorce:

  • Update your beneficiary information on your accounts and insurance policies.
  • Update your will and estate plan.
  • Make sure all of your assets are in your name only and no longer jointly held.
  • Cancel accounts or services you held jointly, like utilities or cable. Open new accounts for you in your name.
  • Allocate a line item for savings in your budget. You want to start rebuilding your own cash reserves. Set an automatic monthly transfer from your checking to your savings so you don’t forget.
  • Close joint credit cards and get a new line of credit in your name.
  • If you have children, keep careful records of expenses for them that you plan to split with your ex, in case of disagreements. Ideally, make sure your divorce agreement includes an explanation of how child care will be split and who is responsible for what, financially.
  • Think about whether you need to hire new financial professionals to help you. You may want to find a new financial planner and certified public accountant. You’ll want to update your financial plan to reflect the fact that you’re no longer married.

Survey methodology: 500 U.S. adults who reported they were in a marriage that ended in divorce via Google Surveys from Feb. 2 to 4, 2017.

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