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6 Months After Settling Sexual Harassment Claims, a Worker Faces the Consequences

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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.

Sexual Harassment Claims
Illustration: Kelsey Wroten for MagnifyMoney

Chelsea Jones thought she’d feel relieved.

In the spring, Jones’ employer agreed to settle her claims that she was sexually harassed by her manager. The matter was handled out of court, and Jones is not allowed to discuss the terms of the settlement. She agreed to share her story with MagnifyMoney under the condition of anonymity. We have changed her name and other identifying details in this story.

Soon after her settlement was finalized, Jones tendered her resignation. It was the end of a months-long battle to convince her employer that her manager’s unrelenting advances — offers to rub her back, late night texts and weekend phone calls — were worthy of of retribution.

But it was hardly a victory. Six months later, Jones, a single mother of a young daughter, is cashing unemployment checks and struggling to find a new job. As far as she knows, her former boss is right where she left him.

“The worst part is that I second-guess myself now,” said Jones, reflecting on the harassment, which she said began after she received a promotion last year. “I’m a hard worker, and I feel like I do a good job. But what if I’m not? Was I really good, or was it always about something else?”

Coming forward

Whether the employee is a famous news anchor or an office assistant, reporting sexual harassment at work is never an easy battle to wage alone. It’s arguably more difficult for the average worker, who may not feel they have the professional clout or the financial means to take action. Workers filed roughly 6,800 sexual harassment charges through the Equal Employment Opportunity Office in 2015, down 14% since 2010.

For Jones, speaking up was only the first of many challenges she faced. While her attorney squared off against her company’s legal team behind closed doors, she continued coming to work each day, where she said she was subjected to an increasingly hostile environment.

Even filing a simple human resources complaint can be rife with complications, exposing workers to forms of retaliation that, while illegal, can make it difficult to muster the willpower to keep fighting.

“[Workers] can be fired or suffer other consequences,” said Gary Young, an attorney who specializes in workplace harassment issues at the business law firm Scarinci Hollenbeck. “Even if you have your day in court and are vindicated, it can be a long road and it’s tough to go through the process.”

No one understands that process better than Jones.

Jones was in her late 20s when she started working for the Boston-area firm in 2013. For Jones, it was something of a professional comeback. She had recently ended a marriage and went back to school to earn her Associate’s Degree. She was thrilled to be hired and eagerly accepted a promotion a couple of years later.

The new title came with a higher salary and, she soon discovered, an increasing amount of unwanted attention from her boss.

“We were at a conference together, and he was offering to give me a back massage, to put his arms around my shoulders,” said Jones, now 30. The advances continued for months. According to Jones, her manager insisted on buying her gifts on her birthday and began texting her late at night and on weekends. She asked her manager to stop his advances, to no avail.

Worried that her coworkers would get the wrong impression about their relationship, Jones decided to report his behavior to her human resources manager.

“I was hoping to resolve the issue [through HR], and change my position so I was no longer sitting outside of his office,” Jones told MagnifyMoney. “My goal wasn’t to file a lawsuit.”

Dead-ends and demotions

Illustration: Kelsey Wroten for MagnifyMoney
Illustration: Kelsey Wroten for MagnifyMoney

HR proved to be a dead end. As a solution, her HR manager offered to put Jones in an administrative role in another part of the company. The new job would have moved her out from under her manager’s purview, but it was effectively a demotion.

She turned the offer down. In the ensuing weeks, her boss increasingly began cutting back her job duties, she said. He yanked her budget for a previously approved work project. She was told she could no longer use support staff to see the project through.

At a loss for what to do, Jones posted a message on a Facebook support group for single working moms. A member referred her to an employment attorney in her area, who offered her a free consultation.

“He said I’m young and if I file a lawsuit it will become public record and it could hurt my future employment,” Jones said. She agreed to give it another try with HR.

When she submitted another complaint, Jones said she received a warning: HR had noticed her performance was slipping and her colleagues were complaining. It was clear she was getting nowhere.

Jones went back to the attorney, who agreed to take her case. The attorney compiled all of Jones’ allegations — she had documented every unwanted advance, phone call and text message from her manager over the years — and sent a letter to her company informing them of the pending lawsuit.

“Once [my boss] got the letter, obviously it made everything way more hostile,” she said. “He didn’t speak a single word to me. I was going [to work each day] having no work to do. Then they started putting me on odds and end jobs not even related to what I was supposed to do there.”

She considered quitting, but Jones’ attorney encouraged her to hang tight.

It can in some cases help workers in sexual harassment cases if they keep working, said Paula Brantner, an attorney with Workplace Fairness, a non-profit that promotes employee rights, says . “First of all, you are required to give the company a chance to rectify the problem,” Bratner said. Quitting before a complaint is resolved can also remove some of the bargaining power in settlement negotiations. Companies are often eager to keep matters like sexual harassment under wraps.

Staying on the job can also give workers the opportunity to keep track of any retaliatory behavior. Workplace harassment lawsuits are often stronger if workers can prove their employer retaliated against them after they took matters to human resources. In Jones’ case, she was offered a demotion and her job duties shrank.

“Even if the initial harassment claim fails, the retaliation claim can subject the employer to as much or more liability as the underlying harassment claim,” said Brantner. “Judges and juries don’t like to see people [follow proper protocol], only to be subjected to more injustice.”

When her attorney reached a settlement with her employer, Jones decided to accept.

“One of the reasons I accepted a settlement instead of going to trial is that I didn’t want to be publicly seen as a woman who files these claims,” she said.

Her allegations will never be made public, but the ordeal has effectively stymied the beginning of what was a promising new career. Jones is still looking for a new job.  She worries about using her former employer as a professional reference, despite the fact that it was her first significant job in her chosen profession. While she continues her job search, Jones is studying part-time to complete her Bachelor’s degree. Under the terms of her settlement, she was entitled to collect unemployment benefits, which has given her a bit of a financial cushion. Her settlement award remains in a savings account, untouched.

“My goal with the settlement wasn’t just to get some payday,” she said. “I’d like to think it was enough to make him stop [doing this to other women].”

Handling harassment at work

We’ve spoken with legal experts and put together some tips for workers who feel they are facing harassment at work.

Identify the unwelcome behavior. Brantner, who has represented workers in harassment lawsuits, says the first thing to do is to recognize when you are being sexually harassed. She says sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome sexual advances or verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is made explicitly or implicitly a term of your employment. It can also be conduct that interferes with your work or creates a hostile work environment.

Report the behavior to your human resources department or other supervisor. When you’ve identified the unwelcome behavior, Brantner says the next step is to report it and ask that it stop. “If the behavior continues after you have clearly communicated that you wish it to stop, you need to decide if you wish to take further action,” she says.

Document everything. If you want to bolster your case, Young suggests documenting any evidence of harassment. Keep a log that includes dates and times, as well as descriptions of the offensive behavior. Note your attempts to speak with human resources and the outcomes. Save emails and written notes to back you up. In some states it is illegal to record conversations without the other person’s knowledge, so check your state’s laws or consult an attorney before you take that route.

Be on alert for any form of retaliation. Speaking up about harassment in the workplace can trigger retaliatory behavior from colleagues. It’s important to keep close track of anything your colleagues may do in order to undermine your position after you have spoken up about harassment. The person you are accusing of harassment might try to make it difficult for you to do your job, or, in Jones’ case, demote you or remove your job duties. Document these instances carefully in order to support your case.

If your employer doesn’t act, contact a lawyer or the EEOC. If you aren’t getting results with your employer, Young recommends visiting the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) website to learn about filing a charge. You can use the EEOC’s assessment tool to get a better idea of what to expect. It takes about five minutes to use the tool, and you will be directed as to your next course of action. Some states have rules on how much time can go by before harassment suits are filed. The EEOC can help you expedite the process if needed.

Money doesn’t have to mean everything. Even if you don’t have unlimited financial resources to hire a legal team, you still have options. Many lawyers will take on workplace harassment cases on a contingency basis, which means they are paid once you have a settlement or win the lawsuit. For example, Jones’ attorney accepted a percentage of her settlement earnings as payment and collected no other fees. If you file with the EEOC or the Department of Labor, or with the appropriate office in your state, the government will investigate if there is probable cause to pursue a lawsuit.

Edited by Mandi Woodruff
Illustrations by Kelsey Wroten

*Names, dates and locations have been changed. 

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Credit Cards, Featured

How to Redeem Cash Back with Citi

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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.

Citi is well known for offering quality credit cards with great balance transfer offers, but the Citi Double Cash card, in particular, is a strong contender for cash back rewards.

The Citi Double Cash card has no annual fee and offers unlimited 1% cash back on purchases plus an additional 1% cash back as you pay for those purchases.

This card also has a variable interest rate of 14.24% to 24.24% and a balance transfer APR of 0% for 18 months.

Even though Citi doesn’t have the highest cash back rate, the fact that you can earn unlimited cash back sets this card apart from others.

In this post, we’ll touch on:

  • How to earn and track cash back rewards with your Citi Double Cash card
  • Navigating through Citi’s online portal to access cash back rewards
  • How to redeem cash back rewards

How to Access Cash Back with Citi

To access your cash back rewards with your Citi Double Cash card, you’ll need to log in to your account by visiting Citi.com/credit-cards. You’ll see a screen similar to the one below. Then, you can log in with your credentials.

screen shot of Citi homepage

Next, you’ll see the main dashboard and all your card information. You’ll also see your cash back balance off to the right.

I have two Citi credit cards so I scrolled down to show my Citi Double Cash card along with where you can expect to see your cash back amount.

screen shot of Citi account dashboard

How to Redeem Cash Back

If you have a cash back balance that you’d like to redeem, you’ll want to click on the button that says “View/Redeem Cash Rewards.”

Once you click that button, you’ll be taken to a page that shows you an entire summary of your cash back earnings per billing statement.

Your cash back earnings will be split up between cash back earned from purchases and cash back earned from payments.

I just signed up for the Citi Double Cash card and have yet to make my first purchase so my cash back amount is currently $0, but when you have a balance, you’ll click the green button that says “Redeem” to move forward with redemption options.

Screen shot Citi redeem cash back

Next, you’ll be taken to a page with different redemption prompts to choose from. You need a balance of at least $25 in cash back before you can successful redeem your earnings.

Citi cash back buttons

As you can see, there are four different ways to redeem cash back with your Citi Double Cash card, and here is an explanation of each of them.

Gift Card

If you choose to redeem your cash back for a gift card, you must click the gift card option, then you’ll be directed to Citi’s gift card marketplace where you can choose from retail, restaurant, entertainment, and electronic gift cards.

Screen shot of Citi gift card redemption

Gift cards are worth $25, $50, and $100, and once you select one, Citi will mail it to you.

Statement Credit

You can also opt to use your cash back earnings as a statement credit to lower the current balance you owe on your Citi Double Cash card. Your statement credit will post to your account within 2-3 business days and will appear on your next statement after it is posted.

It’s also important to realize that Citi does not count a statement credit as a payment even though it will reduce your current balance. You must still make at least your minimum monthly payment by the due date if you want to avoid getting charged a late fee.

Direct Deposit

You can redeem cash back by transferring it directly to your bank account whether it’s a Citi account or not. In order to use this redemption option, you must have either linked your Citi checking or savings account OR have paid a Citi credit card bill at least two times from a non-Citi checking account.

Once you’ve done either of these things, all you need to do is enter in the amount you wish to deposit along with your account information when you redeem cash back via this option. The direct deposit will post to your account within 1-2 business days in most cases.

Check

The final option you have to redeem your cash back is to do so by paper check. Just make sure Citi has the correct address on file for you, then allow 7-10 business days for the check to arrive in the mail.

Final Word

The Citi Double Cash card has one of the easiest online cash back redemption processes, along with plenty of options to accommodate your preferences.

Keep in mind that payments based on balance transfers, interest, fees, and cash advances won’t earn 1%, but you will earn cash back on all other purchases plus additional cash back when you make at least your minimum monthly payment on time.

The Citi Double Cash card is unique in that it rewards you for paying your monthly credit card bill on time, which is a good habit to adopt.

While there is a minimum cash back balance required in order to redeem your rewards, you can track your progress regularly by logging into Citi’s online portal.

 

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Featured, Strategies to Save

How to Use Truebill to Identify & Cancel Recurring Subscriptions

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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.

 

Have you ever forgotten to cancel a subscription that charges you automatically each month? Me, too.

Thanks to Apple Music album exclusives, I’ve racked up quite a few charges from a subscription that I initially planned to cancel right after the free trial.

Truebill is an app that wants to make you aware of all the seemingly low-cost subscriptions that can add up to a lot of money spent. Truebill uses an algorithm to help you identify and cancel recurring payments made from your credit cards and bank accounts so you can find savings.

We tried out the app to see whether or not using it to cut costs is worthwhile. In this post, we’ll cover:

  • How it works
  • Truebill extra features
  • The cost
  • Pros and cons

How Truebill Works

You need to download the Truebill app from iTunes or GooglePlay to get started. The app lets you sign up for a Truebill account by email or Facebook.

Truebill mobile interface

After you create an account, the next step is signing into your credit card and bank accounts through Truebill so that it can review your account data. I signed into one bank account and one credit card account for this trial.

Truebill mobile interface connect accounts

The results of the Truebill statement scan

Truebill scan of bills

The results of the account scan will appear in your app dashboard within a few minutes.

Recurring transactions found are broken down into three categories — subscriptions, recurring bills, and miscellaneous recurring payments.

Here’s what Truebill found from my accounts:

For subscriptions:

  • A recurring Express Scripts prescription charge
  • Payments for monthly services I use to run a business including:
    • ConvertKit
    • FreshBooks
    • Grammarly
    • GoDaddy

For recurring bills and utilities:

  • An annual credit card membership fee
  • A Comcast bill
  • An insurance bill

For recurring miscellaneous payments: 

  • A Bluehost monthly service charge
  • An iTunes (Hulu) monthly subscription

All of the above are current recurring payments that I’m making periodically.

Truebill also has a section that lists your inactive recurring payments.

Inactive payments are for past recurring items that are no longer posting to your account regularly.

In my inactive section, Truebill has recurring transactions and subscriptions from as far back as 2013, including old student loan payments, car note payments, and more.

If you discover that Truebill is missing a subscription, there’s an option to enter the service name, and Truebill will perform another search on your account.

Truebill no results screen show

You can reach out to a customer service representative for extra help if Truebill still can’t locate a subscription after doing this search.

Does Truebill Find All the Sneaky Costs?

The current auto-payments that show up for me are ones I already know about. I’m also someone who pays pretty close attention to every account transaction so I didn’t expect any surprises.

Despite being aware of these auto-payments, I still find it impressive how many past and present recurring transactions the algorithm picked up on. I can see how this tool can be a shortcut for catching pesky auto-payments in one fell swoop for someone who monitors their statements a little less frequently.

I did learn something new related to very old charges.

Truebill found a questionable Home Depot Project Loan transaction from 2013 and was unsure whether or not to mark it as an old inactive recurring payment.

Truebill Home Depot loan

I’ve never taken out a Home Depot Project Loan, so that’s a charge I plan on researching.

How to Cancel Recurring Payments

The second key feature of Truebill is that it helps you cancel these services.

You’re able to terminate many subscriptions within the app itself. When you click on a specific subscription, there’s an “Options” link, and then a red button to “cancel” the subscription appears.

Truebill cancel ConvertKit

However, the option to cancel isn’t available for all services on auto-payment. This is the case for my Express Scripts recurring payment below.

Truebill cancel subscription

If cancellation isn’t an option, you can head over to the Truebill cancellation page for additional instructions.

On this page, there’s a mega list of companies with directions on how to cancel services from each one. The list includes insurance companies, telephone companies, music streaming services, gyms, and more.

You need to fill out more information about yourself for Truebill to move forward with the cancellation of Express Scripts. The site gives a phone number you can call to cancel on your own. For some companies, Truebill even has video instructions on how to cancel a service.

Truebill form to cancel subscriptions

Truebill Extras to Lower Your Bills

Canceling isn’t the only action you can take to cut costs. The app also notifies you of opportunities to renegotiate contract terms for bills like cable, internet, and insurance to save money.

According to the app, my Comcast bill is high, and it recommends using the BillShark service to negotiate a lower bill. BillShark is a partner of Truebill and renegotiates contracts for consumers. If BillShark can lower your bill, it takes a 40% cut of the savings as a service fee. You do not have to pay a dime if BillShark isn’t able to reduce your bill.

I got a notification that my insurance bill seems high as well. The app refers me to a third party called SolidQuote to shop for competitive insurance rates.

We’ll talk a little bit more about these recommendations in the next section.

The Cost of Truebill

The Truebill app is entirely free to download and use. The one extra service that you may have to pay for is BillShark if you choose to use it to renegotiate your bill contracts. Technically, you’re not paying out of pocket for this service either. You will only pay if BillShark is able to find you savings.

How Does Truebill Make Money?

On the terms and conditions page, there’s mention of Truebill having sponsored links to third parties and advertisements. Truebill may receive compensation from recommending other companies to you.

For example, under the suggestion to shop for competitive insurance quotes with SolidQuote, there’s a link to an advertiser disclosure stating Truebill can get paid for the referral.

Truebill advertiser disclosure

You do not have to sign up for any of these third-party offers to use the service for free. You can simply avoid offers throughout the app and still benefit from using it.

Truebill Security

Truebill uses 256-bit encryption and bank-level security to protect your information. The account history used from your financial institutions to manage auto-payments is read-only, and your information is not stored by Truebill servers. Find out more about Truebill security here.

Pros and Cons

Pros:

  • Truebill is free for users.
  • The app is simple to use and reviews your accounts for subscription information quickly.
  • It shows you both active and inactive recurring payments.
  • You may be able to cancel bills with one click on the app. If you can’t cancel through the app, there are instructions on how you can terminate contracts with many companies on the website. Some cancellation instructions even include step-by-step video tutorials.

Cons:

  • There are advertisements to special offers on the app. These offers are not too distracting, but you should be aware that recommendations may be from paid affiliates.
  • The Truebill algorithm works by analyzing your account data. You need to sign in to your financial accounts for it to do its magic. If that’s a turnoff, you won’t get much use from this app.

The Final Verdict

The Truebill app is easy to use and definitely one to consider if you might be flushing money down the toilet with random subscriptions and services. The fact that it shows both current and past subscriptions is a highlight because it’s also helpful to review how much you’ve spent on these recurring payments in the past few years.

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Featured, Strategies to Save

Clever Ways to Reduce or Eliminate Your Housing Costs

Advertiser Disclosure

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.

We all know that aiming to live well below your means will help you save more money, get out of debt, and get ahead financially overall. To supercharge this process, you may want to consider attacking your largest expense: housing.

Just being able to save $200, $500, or more each month on housing could put a large dent in your debt repayment or help you seriously pad your savings. Reducing or eliminating your housing expenses might sound difficult, but there are so many different strategies, at least one could work for you.

What’s more is that these options don’t have to be permanent. You can always go back to a more traditional housing situation once you feel like the arrangement has run its course.

See if one of these ways of cutting your housing costs might work for you.

Be Energy Efficient

The eco-revolution is here, and as a result, there are so many ways to save on utilities. A bonus is that some energy-efficient modifications and products can help you earn federal tax credits.

The list of things you can do is long and can get expensive, but there’s some low-hanging fruit when it comes to reducing your energy consumption:

  • Stop air leaks with caulk, insulation, or weatherstripping
  • Swap out incandescent lights for LED lights
  • Turn down your water heater and get a jacket for it
  • Plug your devices into powerstrips that minimize idle current usage (or unplug devices altogether)
  • Use rainwater barrels for your outdoor water needs
  • Air-dry your clothing
  • Choose light colors on flooring and walls to minimize artificial light use during daylight hours
  • Program your thermostat
  • Get alerts for higher priced kilowatt rates during certain hours of the day

You get the point. The more you can minimize your energy use, obviously the more money you’ll save on these costs. Pick a few that work for you, then use the money saved to get ahead in your finances.

Put Your Bills on Autopay

Not only will this small gesture save your sanity, it could potentially save you fees and penalties connected with late payments. You can set up automatic payments to be deducted from your bank account or a credit card account. If you choose the latter, be sure to avoid carrying a balance from month to month and pay your credit card bill on time as well. Otherwise, the interest and late fees from missing your credit card payment could cancel out the benefits of your autopay set-up.

Appeal Your Property Taxes

If you’ve ever gotten those solicitations in the mail from companies that claim to reduce your property tax bill, don’t put it in the junk pile quite yet. According to the National Taxpayers Union, up to 60% of U.S. properties are over-assessed. This means that 60% of Americans could be paying inflated property tax bills.

Many property owners don’t even know that they can get their property tax bill reduced via an appeal process. Because of this, it’s very possible that you are paying too much for your property taxes.

The appeal process to get your taxes can seem daunting, but it’s usually a string of paperwork and deadlines. Of course, you’ll be dealing with government entities so that could add a layer of complexity to the whole ordeal, but it’s not insurmountable.

If you have the time and ambition, it’s a process you could easily undertake yourself. If not, it may be worth hiring help to file and follow up through the property-tax appeal process. If the appeal is successful and your property taxes are reduced, you’d fork over a portion of the savings to the firm or person you hire.

Shop Around for Insurance

If you’ve got home insurance, you are likely to have other policies for vehicles, and perhaps you also have coverage for health and life insurance benefits, too. If you’ve got insurance needs that require multiple policies, you can leverage your buying power to shop around for better rates.

Shopping around for insurance can seem straightforward, but be ready to use your brain to the utmost in this endeavor. Not only will you need to compare prices, but you’ll also want to compare things like coverage amounts, premiums, deductibles, and available riders at the quoted prices.

Fortunately, there are comparison sites and independent insurance agents that can make this task a little easier. Either way you do it, it’s a good idea to check around every once in a while to make sure your current insurance provider is being competitive and offering you the best rate.

Become a DIYer

One of the most costly expenses of owning a home can be maintenance, repairs, and upgrades. Save money by learning to do some things around the house yourself. There are many resources to help you with anything you don’t know much about, from books, to websites, to YouTube. Though it can take more time, you might come out ahead by cutting your own grass or installing your own kitchen backsplash.

If you’ve got complicated jobs that require special expertise and equipment, consider a partial DIY approach. For example, if you’re redoing your bathroom, you might ask the contractor about things you can do yourself to shave the bill down some. Demolition and cleanup of existing fixtures might be the type of work you can handle.

Don’t be afraid to experiment, but definitely be wise about the projects you decide to take on yourself. Finding the right balance between hiring and DIYing can save you time, money, and headaches as a homeowner.

Rethink Your Home Purchase Plan

Getting a conventional mortgage with vanilla terms that include a 10%-20% down payment and a 30-year loan period are all too familiar to the home-buying public. But if you really want to save on the single largest expense in your life, you might have to be a little more flexible than the standard terms accepted on most home loans.

Larger Down Payment

One approach to consider is putting down at least 20% on your home purchase. This will allow you to skip private mortgage insurance (PMI), which can amount to thousands of dollars over the life of your home loan. PMI can eventually go away over the life of the loan when certain criteria is met, but you can save more money by dumping it sooner than later.

Refinance Your Mortgage

Many people refinance their homes in hopes of getting a lower monthly payment or locking in a lower interest rate. Adjusting these numbers downward can definitely save money for some homeowners over the long run.

However, refinancing your home loan is not a silver-bullet solution that will work in every scenario. In some cases, it makes perfect sense to refinance, and in others, it wouldn’t be a good idea. The best thing to do is run the refinance numbers and make a decision. After doing the math, you might actually find that fees and extended loan terms could cause you to lose money rather than save it.

Make sure you fully understand the terms of your refinanced mortgage along with the potential impact on your entire financial outlook. Most definitely, confirm your assumptions about this move with math. If you need help running the numbers, check out this refinance calculator from myFICO.

Pay Cash for Your Home

While not an option for the average American, paying cash for your home is not unheard of. Paying cash for a home would eliminate tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars in interest, mortgage fees, and PMI. If you think you’d like to go for the gusto and pay cash for a home, consider ways to make this feat possible:

Drastically Change Your Lifestyle

Though these options aren’t for everyone, they are still worth a mention. These suggestions are for those who might be willing to change their lifestyle in order to garner the most savings possible when it comes to housing.

Get a Roommate (or Two)

The home-sharing revolution has caught on, and everyone from young professionals to empty nesters are finding boarders on places like Craigslist and Airbnb. If it works out, it can truly be a good solution to help lower your housing costs. Plus, having a roommate can be temporary or longer term, based on your living preferences.

Again, this option is not for the faint of heart. Adding a roommate to your living equation could be utterly disastrous or surprisingly pleasant, so choose your housemates wisely.

Buy a Multifamily Unit, Rent One Unit Out

Depending on the location and property type in these situations, homeowners can often cover their entire mortgage amount with their renters’ payments. It can definitely have its benefits, but don’t buy that two-flat just yet.

Remember, with this arrangement, you’ll be swimming deep in the waters of landlordship. How it all pans out can be based on so many variables: the landlord, tenant, property, location, and a host of other factors can make this arrangement easy income or a nightmarish headache.

If things go wrong with your property, your tenant doesn’t share the burden of fixing things though they live there just the same. There can be costs associated with maintenance and repairs that go well beyond the monthly income your rented unit brings in. You’ll want to have a comfortable cash cushion for incidentals before starting your homeownership journey as a landlord.

Downsize

You don’t have to join the tiny home revolution to downsize (though it’s not a terrible idea). Downsizing can look different for different people. Downsizing for one person might be moving from the lake-view two-bedroom apartment to a studio in a less ritzy location. You’ll have to decide what downsizing looks like for you and if it will be worth the effort.

While you might not be game for all of these suggestions, you can probably adopt a few that could change your financial situation significantly. Whatever measures you choose to save or eliminate your housing costs, make sure you are ready to deal with the consequences. These consequences can be both beneficial and somewhat inconvenient for your quality of life and your financial health. In the end, you’ll have to determine if it’s worth it.

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Credit Cards, Featured, News

3 Ways to Get a Credit Limit Increase

Advertiser Disclosure

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.

In many cases, a credit limit increase can sound like a good idea. If you start out with a credit limit of $2,000, for example, it’s good to know that your limit can increase in the future so you can have more buying power and find it easier to maintain a low utilization rate.

Sometimes, increasing your credit limit will not always be in your best interest because it can tempt you to overspend. In that case, it’s also easy to drive up your utilization rate, which is how much you are spending versus how much available credit you have. If your utilization rate gets higher than 20%-30%, it can begin to hurt your credit score.

What’s worse, by overspending and not paying your credit card balance off in full each month, you can get into debt.

If you’d like to secure a credit limit increase for a credit card and you know that you’ll have a good sense of self-control over your spending, there are quite a few ways to obtain a credit limit increase.

In this article, we’ll go over your different options when it comes to obtaining a credit limit increase and what you might want as an alternative.

How to Ask for a Credit Limit Increase on Your Current Card

One of the most common ways to obtain a credit limit increase is to simply ask for one. Most credit card companies and banks allow you to request a credit limit increase online or you can do it by phone.

We’ve gone through the process of requesting a credit limit increase with various banks in detail, including Wells Fargo, Capital One, Discover, Barclaycard, American Express, and more, if you need specific instructions regarding the process.

When requesting a credit limit increase, it’s important to make sure you meet the criteria to be considered. Some banks have certain requirements and like to see your account paid off and in good standing, a good credit score, and recent spending activity on your end.

If you haven’t been consistent about paying your credit card bill on time, that may work against you when you decide to request a higher credit limit.

On the other hand, if you’ve been managing your card well and paying your bill on time and would like more buying power, you may want to consider requesting a credit limit increase just to see what the end result will be.

Sit and Wait (Automatic)

Some credit card companies will offer you a credit limit increase automatically so you won’t need to do anything on your end.

If you’ve been spending on your card regularly, paying your bill on time, and keeping your utilization rate low, you may receive an offer to increase your credit limit automatically.

In this case, you can either accept or deny the offer. In most cases, accepting the offer will be your best bet if you like the credit card and use it from time to time. Even if you don’t use the card often, having a higher limit will only help lower your utilization rate as long as your spending doesn’t increase significantly.

Consider a New Card

If you’re on the fence about getting a credit limit increase, you can always consider signing up for a new credit card instead. Adding a new credit card to your wallet can increase the number of accounts you have, which can be a positive move for your credit if you only have a low number of accounts total.

Some new credit cards also have great sign-up bonuses so you can take advantage of more cash back offers, an extended 0% APR rate, balance transfers, etc., and these are benefits you might not be able to receive if you only increase the limit on your existing credit card.

To find out if you’ll be approved for a new credit card without hurting your score, you can get pre-qualified, which typically allows banks to peek at your creditworthiness via a soft inquiry. Getting pre-qualified for a credit card can reduce your risk of getting denied, and it’s pretty simple. Find out how to do it here.

Also, another reason why you might opt to just get a new credit card instead of considering a credit limit increase is if you don’t like or use your current card often. If you have an annual fee, a high-interest rate, and little reward opportunities with your existing card, it won’t make much sense to increase your limit and buying power.

Instead, signing up for a new and better credit card can be more beneficial and help you save money, especially if it has no annual fee.

Get a Personal Loan

If you are thinking about a credit limit increase because you need the extra money but don’t want to obtain a hard credit inquiry, a personal loan is an alternative option.

There are quite a few internet-only personal loan companies that allow you to see if you are pre-approved for a loan without involving a hard credit inquiry. Personal loans also tend to have lower interest rates than credit cards, so if your main intention is to borrow money to cover an expense, this may be a better option.

To see if you qualify for a loan, use our online tool here. You just need to fill out one application, and MagnifyMoney will check your rate with multiple lenders (without harming your credit score) to help you find the best offer.

What to Do If You Get Denied

If you request a credit limit increase and get denied, you’ll usually receive a response explaining why you didn’t get approved. Once you know why you didn’t get approved, you can take the necessary steps to fix the issues outlined and request an increase again if you wish.

Be mindful that some banks will let you request a credit limit increase at any time, while others may require that you wait a few weeks or months before putting in a request again.

While waiting it out and correcting the issues that contributed to you getting denied should fix the issue, you can also try either of the alternative options mentioned above as well if you didn’t get approved for a credit limit increase the first time around.

Benefits of Requesting a Credit Limit Increase

Obtaining a credit limit increase can be a smart move and provide you with benefits like increasing your credit limit and having more buying power in the event that you need to use your card for a large expense or emergency. With a higher limit, you are less likely to max out your card.

A credit limit increase will also make it easier for you to keep your utilization rate low and preferably below 20%. The process may also be easier than applying for a brand new credit card, especially if you receive credit limit increase offers automatically.

Drawbacks of Requesting a Credit Limit Increase

Increasing your credit limit isn’t always the best option for everyone, so it’s only fair to go over some of the possible drawbacks of making this decision.

In some cases, you’ll receive an extra credit inquiry, which could be a hard credit inquiry when you request a credit limit increase. Increasing your limit can also increase the risk of overspending and getting into debt.

There’s also no guarantee that you’ll get approved for a credit limit increase, so your request can get rejected. Also, if you have a card with a high-interest rate and an annual fee, you might be better off signing up for a better credit card.

Final Word

Requesting a credit limit increase can seem like a good idea on the surface, but it’s not the best solution for everyone. You must determine your needs, current situation, and intentions before going through with your decision.

If you decide to move forward with obtaining a credit card limit increase, be sure to pay your credit card balance off in full each month and keep your overall utilization rate at 20% or lower.

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Are Discount Gift Cards Worth the Hassle?

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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.

Gift card exchange sites are places where you can buy and sell gift cards. If you’re unfamiliar with the gift card exchange craze, here’s the rundown of how you can benefit:

  • Selling – You can sell unused gift cards on these sites for cash or other gift cards. According to estimates published by Market Watch, $750 million in gift cards were expected to go unused in 2014. Before your card is one of many that go to waste, you can sell it and get your hands on some money instead.
  • Buying – Gift card exchanges also sell gift cards for less than their value. Say you want to buy an iTunes gift card for your cousin Joe’s birthday. You may be able to find an iTunes gift card with $100 on it that’s selling for $95 or a 5% discount.

There are quite a few gift card exchange websites you can use to find deals.

In this post, we’re going to take a look at the popular gift card exchange sites to compare savings and how each one works. We’ll also dig into the major gift card search engine, Gift Card Granny, to review the process of using it to shop for and sell gift cards.

Lastly, we’ll give you our take on whether or not the deals you can get from buying and selling cards are worth your time.

Buying and Selling Gift Cards

The how-to process of buying and selling gift cards is pretty similar for each gift card exchange site so we’ve broken down what you need to know in the following two sections.

Buying gift cards

Most sites allow you to buy both e-cards and physical gift cards. E-cards are delivered to you by email after purchase. Physical gift cards can take from several days to over a week to get to you through snail mail.

A factor that can make shopping for gift cards tedious is finding a site that has the card inventory that you need. Gift card availability varies from seller to seller. Some sites have loads of cards you can buy, and others have very few on sale from restaurants and stores you may never visit.

One very important to thing to mention before we compare savings is that customers have complained about buying cards from popular gift card sellers that didn’t work or had no money on them when they arrived. This is why gift card exchanges have money-back guarantee policies.

If you buy gift cards, you must choose an exchange site that has a money-back guarantee that lasts at least several weeks. This way you have enough time to receive the card, test the card, and request a refund if it doesn’t work. We’ve included the guarantee period in our savings comparison below.

How gift card discounts compare from site to site

For our shopping example, we want to buy a Macy’s gift card and we want the card to have as close to $50 on it as possible because it’s for a gift.

We searched for deals on CardCash/ABC Gift Cards, Cardpool, GiftCardBin, Giftcard Zen, and Raise because each of these six exchanges has no fees, a money-back guarantee, a variety of cards for sale, and a user-friendly website.

Here’s what we found:

Gift-Card-Purchasing

*CardCash and ABC Gift Cards are the same company but can offer different savings rates on gift cards. For Macy’s the savings happens to be the same.

ABC Gift Cards and CardCash take the cake for the best percentage off discount in this example at 13.25% savings.

But GiftCardBin gives you a Macy’s gift card with exactly $50 on it. The person receiving the gift will probably be more appreciative of getting a full $50 on the card than $43.90 (unless it’s a gag gift).

Overall, in this example we can get between 5% to 13% off of our Macy’s gift card.

Savings will vary depending on the type of card you’re looking for. Even the inventory and discount can change for Macy’s cards from day to day, but this gives you an idea of what’s offered.

Selling gift cards

Now let’s move on to selling those gift cards you have piled up from Christmas and your birthday.

Some exchange sites will take both e-cards and physical cards. For sites that will take e-cards off your hands, you type in the e-code that’s on the e-card to go through with the transaction. The company will give you a free shipping label to send in physical cards.

How deals for gift card sellers compare from site to site

Let’s say you’re sitting on a $50 Macy’s gift card and you don’t intend to shop at that store.

We searched for trade deals from CardCash/ABC Gift Cards, Cardpool, GiftCardBin, and Raise.

Here’s what you can get for a Macy’s card:

Gift-Card-Selling

As you can see, the most value is given when you trade a gift card for another gift card.

At a quick glance, Raise appears to give you the most cash back for the trade, but you have to factor in the listing fee and whether someone will buy the card for that asking price.

You may notice Giftcard Zen doesn’t make our list for places to sell your Macy’s card when it made our list for places to buy a Macy’s card.

We went to Giftcard Zen to see what the site offers for a card trade and found the company is not currently accepting cards from Macy’s. Again, inventory and what a site will accept is ever changing.

This is where Gift Card Granny comes into the picture and tries to make your life easier.

Instead of having to search each and every gift card site for deals, Gift Card Granny is where you can compare buying and selling opportunities in one place.

Gift Card Granny — The Gift Card Exchange Aggregate

If you want to search a number of gift card exchange websites all at once, Gift Card Granny is a great source. The shopping experience on Gift Card Granny is like shopping for hotels and flights on Kayak.

You type in the gift card you’re looking to buy or sell, and the Gift Card Granny search engine pulls up deals from various gift card sites, including sites we mentioned above.

We went through a scenario with Gift Card Granny to weigh in on the recommended deals. Here’s what we found.

Finding places to buy cards using Gift Card Granny

Let’s go back to our initial scenario where we were buying our cousin Joe an iTunes gift card for his birthday.

Gift Card Granny came up with a bunch of options after we typed iTunes into the search bar.

gcg-options-iphone

We clicked on Card Kangaroo first since the check mark means it’s a Gift Card Granny Premier Partner. After getting redirected to the Card Kangaroo site, we discovered that there are no iTunes gift cards available even though the deal is listed on Gift Card Granny. It may be because Gift Card Granny has a lag in inventory updates.

This doesn’t come as a complete shock since Card Kangaroo was left off of our roundup from above for having a pretty slim gift card stock for buyers.

itunes-giftcards

So we decided to dig into two more options, GiftMe and Gift Card Spread. GiftMe has the highest savings percentage on the list, and Gift Card Spread is another Gift Card Granny Premier Partner.

GiftMe turns out to be an app that you need to download to your phone first before you can buy and sell your cards. We downloaded the app and found that there is indeed a $100 iTunes gift card available for $88.52.

GiftMe-App

To buy a card on GiftMe, you have to fill out your name and address. You also have to take a photo of the front and back of your credit card to be verified before purchase.

According to the app FAQ page, GiftMe will delete the photo after verification, and the app is PCI compliant. PCI is a security standard for transmitting credit card data, but to err on the side of caution, you probably shouldn’t be sending photos of your credit card to anyone.

That leaves the third and final top savings option that we looked into, Gift Card Spread. Gift Card Spread has iTunes gift card inventory for a little over 10% savings.

Gift-card-spread

You need to sign up for an account to buy a card from Gift Card Spread. In some cases, you may have to verify yourself as the credit card holder before purchasing by answering questions or going on a three-way call with the company and your credit card issuer.

Based on this experience shopping on Gift Card Granny, you’ll probably have to click around through several deals before you find a gift card seller that has the right stock and that doesn’t have a buying process that’s asking for too much of your personal information.

The exchanges we listed in our large roundup above appear on Gift Card Granny but not as one of the top savings options.

Finding places to sell cards using Gift Card Granny

Gift Card Granny will tell you the offers available for the type of card you want to sell.

The options will include places where you can sell your card instantly and others where you have to list your card for sale until someone buys it, such as Raise (we talked about Raise above) and eBay.

gcg-giftcard-sell

Be careful when selling cards on eBay because scams are rampant. You can even take a peek at the eBay community discussions here and here where someone shamelessly explains how they’ve scammed sellers out of gift cards.

A common way buyers seem to scam sellers is by asking for the serial number of a gift card to “confirm the amount” and then draining the card before paying. Scammers may also receive the card and then, to get a refund, complain to eBay that they never got it.

The bottom line is, proceed with caution when selling gift cards on eBay. It may be best to avoid the risk entirely.

Overall when it comes to buying and selling gift cards, Gift Card Granny does make it easier to compare options head-to-head even though you have to do some detective work to find good deals.

Gift Card Exchanges: A Much Better Deal for Buyers than Sellers

An honest opinion about the gift card buying process is that going through tedious sign-up forms and verifications for minimal savings (i.e., a $1.50 discount on a $15 iTunes gift card) may not be a good use of your time. Companies don’t want to get burned in the transaction, so they take extra precautions to confirm that your form of payment will work before releasing a gift card to you.

It’s an entirely different story if you can get something like 20% off of a $200 iTunes gift card. The $20 savings could be well worth the wait but only if the verification process is secure. Taking photos of your credit card or ID is still a little much even for $20.

As for the selling aspect, be aware again that this isn’t quick money (unless the site you exchange with has physical locations). The exchange website will need to confirm your gift card balance, which can take several business days, before they’re willing to send you cash or another card of your choosing.

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Get The Highest Credit Score Possible: New Credit Card Study Reveals the Key

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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.

Getting a high credit score can make it easier for consumers to save on life’s biggest purchases. But many Americans who are stuck with average or below average credit may find it difficult to move up the credit score ladder.

In a new study, MagnifyMoney, a leading financial comparison and education website, partnered with  VantageScore Solutions to see how much credit consumers are using — and how that impacts their credit score.

In the study, VantageScore delved into the credit score profiles of U.S. consumers who are using credit cards in 2017. Scores analyzed were on a 300 – 850 scale, using the VantageScore 3.0 score model.

We decided to home in on utilization — that’s how much credit people are using compared to how much credit they have available to them. Then, we looked at how their credit utilization corresponded to their credit score.

What we found is that people with excellent credit share one main trait in common: They have incredibly low utilization rates.

If you want the highest score, you need to make sure you haven’t missed any payments in the past and don’t have any public records, collection items or judgments. However, what this data shows is that even if you have a perfect payment history, low utilization is critical to get the highest score.

Key findings include…

  • The best scores have 16x the credit limit of the worst scores: People with the best scores (above 800) have available credit of $46,735, 16x that of the $2,816 of those with the worst scores (below 450), but their outstanding balances are about the same at $2,231 (above 800) vs $2,653 (below 450)
  • People with scores 601-650 have the biggest credit card bills: People with scores between 601 and 650 carry the biggest balances, at over $10k, or nearly 2x the average of all consumers.
  • The average credit card holder has $29,197 in credit lines. With an average balance of $5,720, the average holder is using 20% of available credit.
  • Getting above 700 is the biggest hurdle. People with scores 701-750 have average utilization of 27% vs 47% for those with scores 651-700, the biggest utilization gap of any score band. Average balances for people with scores 651-700 are about $3,000 higher than those with scores in the 701-750 range.

The Power of the Utilization Rate

One of the most influential metrics in credit scoring is called “revolving utilization.” This metric, informally referred to as the debt-to-limit ratio, calculates just how leveraged your credit cards are at any given time by comparing your balances to your credit limits. According to VantageScore, and using data provided by the three credit reporting agencies, people with credit scores above 800 have an average debt-to-limit ratio of just 5%.

To calculate the debt-to-limit ratio you must do a little math. The first thing you’ll do is add up the balances on all of your credit cards, which includes retail store and gas credit cards. Now add up the credit limits of those same cards and any other unused credit cards. Now you’re ready to do the math. Divide the total credit card balance by the total credit limit, and then multiple that number by 100 and you’ll get your percentage.

NOTE: Do NOT include any balances or original loan amounts from installment loans like mortgages, student loans, or auto loans. Revolving utilization is only calculated from your revolving credit card accounts.

Inside the Wallet of Someone With Perfect Credit

As you can see from the chart below, those of you with VantageScore credit scores over 800 have an average debt-to-limit ratio of just 5%. The math it took to get to 5% looks something like this: you have an average total balance of $2,231 and an average total credit limit of $46,735. When you divide $2,231 by $46,735 you get 5% — 5% is a fantastic debt-to-limit ratio. This is where you want to be!

Inside the Wallet of Someone With Bad Credit

On the other end of the score range — those of you with the lowest possible scores, 450 and below — you have an average debt-to-limit ratio of 94%, which is very high and very poor. Your average total balance is $2,653 and an average total credit limit of $2,816. When you divide $2,653 by $2,816 you get 94%. Ninety-four percent is simply too high and a significant reason why your scores are so low. This is not where you want to be!

 

It is important to point out that the debt-to-limit ratio is just that, a ratio. It’s all about the relationship between the balance and credit limit, not so much how large or how small your balances are or how large or how small your credit limits are. In fact, the people whose scores are the very lowest don’t have that much more average credit card debt than the people with the highest scores — $2,231 for the high scorers and $2,653 for the low scorers.

The significant difference between the two populations is in the credit limits. The folks with the highest scores have the largest total credit limit, $46,735 as compared to $2,816 for the people with the lowest scores.

You can see just how problematic it is to have lower limits as it makes even modest credit card balances very problematic for your credit scores as they take up a considerable portion of your available credit. You get too close to maxing out your available credit too quickly.

Use These Findings to Boost Your Credit Score

Here are MagnifyMoney’s tips on improving a low credit score:

Step 1: Get a line of credit

In order to establish credit history, you need to have a form of credit. The simplest way for you to begin will be to open a credit card. If your score is low or non-existent, then you’ll need to apply for a secured card or a store card.

  • Secured Card:  You’ll use your own money as collateral by putting down a deposit of a few hundred dollars with the bank. Typically, that amount will then be your credit limit. Once you prove you’re responsible, you can get back your deposit and upgrade to a regular credit card. [Read more here]

  • Store Card: People with a low credit score can often still get store cards because banks are more likely to approve users who apply through the store. The catch is that the interest rates are often very high if you can’t make your payments. [Read more here]

Step 2: Keep your utilization rate low

Utilization is the amount of your credit limit you spend each month. For example, if you have a $500 credit limit and spend $50 in a month, you’re utilization will be 10%. Your utilization is part of what determines your credit score.

Your goal should be to never exceed 30% of your credit limit. Ideally, you should be even lower than 30% because the lower your utilization rate, the better your score will be.

We recommend you make one small purchase (hello, pack of gum) a month to keep your utilization low and help increase your credit score at a faster rate.

Step 3: Pay in full, and on time, each month

The easiest way to prove you’re responsible is to only charge what you can afford. Never use your credit card to buy an item you won’t be able to pay off on time and in full each month.

Being late on your payments has a huge, negative impact on your credit score.

There is also no advantage to only paying the minimum amount due on your card. That will only result in you paying interest and does nothing to help your credit score. So just save yourself money and pay your entire bill.

Step 4: Avoid credit card debt

This goes hand-and-hand with step three. By only purchasing what you can pay off in full, you’ll never accumulate credit card debt.

If you’re already in debt from the misuse of credit cards, then make sure you continue to pay at least the minimum due on time each month. Paying on time is the number one indicator of a responsible borrower. You should consider applying for a personal loan, and using the money from the loan to pay off your credit card debt. Personal loan companies have interest rates that start as low as 4.25%, and they are approving people with credit scores as low as 550. You can shop around for a personal loan without hurting your score, because the lenders will approve you using a soft pull (which doesn’t impact your score). A recent study by Lending Club showed that people who paid off their credit card debt with a personal loan saw their score increase by 31% on average, right away. You can look for the best personal loans using this personal loan tool. After you pay off your credit cards with the proceeds on the loan, do not build up your debt again. Instead, just make one purchase each month and pay it off in full.

Once you pay off your cards, resist the urge to close them. Closing your cards will not only lower your utilization but remove history which damages your score in the “length of history” category.

Step 5: As your score improves, so do your options for better credit cards

You’ll start to get credit card offers as you begin to build your credit history and improve your score. Credit card companies still love sending snail mail.

Beware of any offers, especially for cash back cards, while your score is below 650. These cards typically provide little value and can smack you with high interest rates if you fail to follow step three.

Not sure if an offer is a good deal? Try checking it out in our cashback reward cards page. Our Magnify Transparency Score will let you know if it’s the real deal.

Once you get your credit score above 680, the good credit card offers will start rolling in. You can have your pick of the top-tier reward credit cards and start using your regular spending to get cash back or rack up points for travel.

Step 6: Protect your score

Once you’ve achieved a higher credit score, but sure to protect it by following these simple steps:

  • Always pay on time – late or missed payments will cost you dearly

  • Try to keep your credit used below 30% of your available credit

  • If you apply for a store card to increase your credit then immediately put in the freezer (literally if you have to) and avoid spending

  • Be sure to check your credit reports for accuracy and signs of fraud – you’re entitled to one free report per year from each of the three credit bureaus

If you have any questions or just want a helping hand, please reach out to us at info@magnifymoney.com or tweet us @Magnify_Money.

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7 Money Rules Freelancers Should Live By

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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.

Freelance journalist

For years, Russell Wild was one of millions of Americans who didn’t know from where or when his next check was coming. The former freelance journalist says he’s very familiar with living with volatile income, some months raking in far more than he needed and other months scraping by while waiting for the next check to arrive.

“Both the income side is volatile, and the expense side, especially where health care is concerned, because freelancers don’t have corporate coverage,” says Wild.

Nearly one-third (34%) of Americans said they faced large swings in income from 2014 to 2015, according to a recent analysis by PEW Charitable Trusts. The research group defines a “volatile” income change to be an increase or decrease of at least 25%. Among households whose earnings declined, the median loss was 49%.

In 2004, Wild dropped his freelance writing career for something more stable. He’s now a registered financial adviser and author based in Philadelphia, Pa. He says he watched fellow freelancers “go into panic when they saw that there was little chance of covering the next month’s rent, or the latest doctor’s bill.”

Year over year fluctuations in household income occur for a number of reasons. A worker might get an annual bonus or promotion. On the flip side, a worker could experience a sudden illness or job loss. Those in contract or freelance occupations are especially vulnerable to income volatility. Researchers also found Hispanic, less-educated, and low-income American households are most susceptible to income volatility.

Households experiencing inconsistent or irregular income may be able to leverage the following tips to better manage financially and get prepared in case of a financial emergency.

  1. Base your budget on your lowest grossing month

Your household’s income might be volatile, but your goal should be to make sure your lifestyle is as predictable as possible. You can add some stability to your life by establishing a budget.

“Try to live within a fixed income — the lowest point of your fluctuating annual or monthly household income,” says Arlington,Va.-based financial planner Hui-chin Chen. Those with volatile income should also try to limit debt and unnecessary spending.

Monitor your household’s cash flow carefully to see what you’re spending money on, then cut out the unnecessary expenses until you are left with your fixed costs, such as housing or monthly bills.

“Without being aware of what you’re spending and where, you can overspend your sometimes low income without realizing it, or treat yourself to more than you should when there’s a big month,” says Stephen Fletcher, an adviser at BlueSky Wealth Advisors in New Bern, N.C.

Keeping record of your spending might be tough to do at first, but budgeting apps like EveryDollar, Level Money, and Mint can help you keep an eye on yourself or your household.

“Volatile incomes require discipline, otherwise you can end up feeling like you are living paycheck to paycheck,” says Fletcher.

  1. Set your lifestyle now

Once you’ve got your budget together, don’t fall prey to lifestyle inflation when you have a couple of months of steady work or receive a large influx of cash. Try to develop regular spending and saving patterns.

“If you know what you need to keep the lights on and you know what you need to pay yourself (save), it’s much easier to plan for influxes of cash that need to be set aside,” says Chicago-based financial planner Nick Cosky. He says households can get started by setting monthly and annual spending and savings goals.

Try to make as many monthly and annual expenses as possible predictable and planned. For example, if you know your expenses totaled about $5,000 last month, then you should plan to spend no more than $5,000 this month and the following month.

“Live below your means, especially until you have achieved sufficient cash reserves and savings,” says Anne C. Chernish, president and managing member of Anchor Capital Management in Ithaca, N.Y.

Once you’ve maintained a certain level of monthly cash flow and your emergency stash is all set, you can adjust your quality of life accordingly. If you can afford to, Patrick Amey, a financial planner at KHC Wealth Management in Overland Park, Kan., suggests those who experience regular volatility keep one to two years of living expenses available — just in case you need to maintain your lifestyle without a paycheck for a while.

  1. Anticipate large expenditures

If you are aware of a large expense coming up — maybe your car needs repair or you’re aware of necessary medical services or even paying your taxes each year — you should plan to save as much as you can before the bill comes.

Create a separate savings account and allocate funds toward it periodically for the upcoming expense. Make sure your savings goal considers all of associated costs, so you won’t get caught off guard.

“With purchases like cars, homes, and other large items, these types of purchases require insurance, property taxes, etc., so buying when you have just enough cash to make the purchase can have serious and crippling long-term effects,” says Fletcher.

  1. Always plan ahead for taxes

If your income varies because you’re a contractor or work for yourself, you’ll need to budget for tax withholding. You can plan ahead and pay your taxes quarterly. You’ll get the payment out of the way, plus you won’t feel it as much as you would if you pay when you file your taxes.

Unfortunately, if you experience income volatility, you might pay a different amount in taxes if you have a particularly good — or bad — year and enter a different tax bracket.

“Higher taxes follow good earnings years and, if one has insufficient reserves for tax, can deliver a double whammy. Just as the income turns down, the tax from the previous year is due,” says Chernish.

For that reason, Cosky recommends you get 6 to 12 months ahead of the tax liability and keep your CPA or tax preparer in the loop so they can help you plan tax withholding.

If you’re doing your taxes on your own, you can use this IRS form to estimate your taxes owed each quarter.

  1. Have multiple income streams

When your main income stream is inconsistent, it might help to pick up a second job to help cover expenses during economic downswings or simply to ensure your expenses will be covered.

As an added benefit, you might also feel more financially stable, as you could possibly put more money into your savings.

Wild, a former president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, says for most freelancers that might mean accepting a corporate contract and working on your more creative projects in-between the corporate job’s deadlines.

“When I was writing full time, before I started financial planning, I always had a steady gig. I was for years a regular contributor to various magazines, and later I had book contracts with decent advances,” says Wild.

  1. Save at least a year’s worth of expenses

Lynn Dunston, Senior Wealth Manager at Dunston Financial Group in Denver, Colo., suggests those with volatile income have enough money saved in an emergency account to cover a year’s worth of expenses, instead of the usual 3- to 6-month savings recommendation for those with stable income.

“It is critical that if there is a down month, they are not having to accumulate credit card debt or take out loans in order to continue their standard of living,” says Fletcher.

  1. Make sure your money is working for you

After you have your emergency savings funded, it might not make as much sense to continue to put ALL of your extra savings there. Since interest rates on savings accounts currently lag behind inflation, your money would actually lose value in the typical savings account today.

You can stash “near cash” in higher-yield savings options like short-term bonds or CDs. Mark R. Morley, president of Warburton Capital Management in Tulsa, Okla., tells his clients to create a “currency escrow” or a safe bond portfolio that can be liquidated as needed for currency needs. The escrow ideally holds at least one year of expenses in short-term investment bonds. Morley says it can be used to supplement income or added to when income is high.

Fletcher says to avoid tying up all of your cash savings in retirement accounts like a 401(k) or IRA to avoid penalty charges in case you need to withdraw the funds early. Instead, he suggests you invest excess funds in a brokerage account, since you can take money out of that with little or no tax implications.

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Building Credit, Featured

12 Million People Are About to Get a Credit Score Boost — Here’s Why

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12 Million People Are About to Get a Credit Score Boost

Some serious tax liens and civil judgments will soon disappear from millions of credit reports, the Consumer Data Industry Association announced this week. As a result, millions of consumers could see their FICO scores improve dramatically.

The CDIA, the trade organization that represents all three major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — says they have agreed to remove from consumer credit reports any tax lien and civil judgment data that doesn’t include all of a consumer’s information. That information can include the consumer’s full name, address, Social Security number, or date of birth. The changes are set to take effect July 1.

Roughly 12 million U.S. consumers should expect to see their FICO scores rise as a result of the change says Ethan Dornhelm, vice president of scores and analytics at FICO. The vast majority will see a boost of 20 points or so, he added, while some 700,000 consumers will see a 40-point boost or higher.

Even a small 20-point increase could improve access to lower rates on financial products for these consumers.

“For consumers, the news is all good,” says credit expert John Ulzheimer. “Your score can’t go down because of the removal of a lien or a judgment.”

The change will apply to all new tax lien and civil-judgment information that’s added to consumers’ credit reports as well as data already on the reports. Ulzheimer says consumers who currently have tax liens or judgments on their credit reports that are weighing down their credit scores will be able to reap the rewards of removal almost immediately

“The minute the stuff is gone, your score will adjust and you’re going to find yourself in a better position to leverage that better score,” says Ulzheimer.

But, importantly, he notes that just because credit reporting bureaus will no longer count tax liens or civil judgments against you, it does not mean they no longer exist at all. Consumers could still be impacted by wage garnishment and other punishments associated with the liens and judgments.

“This is the equivalent of taking white-out and whiting it out on your credit report. You can’t see it any longer, but you still have a lien, you still a have a judgment,” Ulzheimer says.

Solution to a longstanding problem

Many tax liens and most civil judgments have incomplete consumer information.

The changes are part of the CDIA’s National Consumer Assistance program that has already removed non-loan-related items sent to collections firms, such as past-due accounts for gym memberships or libraries. The program also has set a 2018 goal to remove from credit reports medical debt that consumers have already paid off.

“Some creditors may have liked having inaccurate credit reports, as long as they were skewed in their favor. That’s not the way the system is supposed to work. This action is just one more proof that the CFPB [Consumer Financial Protection Bureau] works, and works well, and shouldn’t be weakened by special interest influence over Congress,” says Edmund Mierzwinski, consumer program director at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

The move is likely the result of several state settlements and pressure from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the federal financial industry watchdog.  Beginning in 2015, the reporting agencies reached settlements with 32 different state Attorneys General over several practices, including how they handle errors. The CFPB also released a report earlier this month that examined credit bureaus and recommended they raise their standards for recording public record data.


Time to start shopping for better loan rates?

High credit scores can lead to long-term savings. Borrowers who expect their scores to improve as a result of these changes may find better deals if they can wait a few months to buy a new house, refinance a mortgage, or purchase a new car. Even a 10-point difference can lead to lower rates on loans.

If you expect the credit reporting changes might benefit you, Ulzheimer suggests holding off on taking out new loans or shopping for refi deals, such as student loan refinancing.
“Let it happen, pull your own credit reports to verify the information is gone, then take advantage of the higher scores,” Ulzheimer says.

Ulzheimer also says the changes may not be permanent. “There is a possibility that if the credit reporting bureau is able to find the missing information, the negative information could reappear on consumer credit reports,” he says.

There isn’t anything in the law that forbids the reporting of liens and judgments anymore, and lenders can still check public records on their own to find missing information.

Ulzheimer says if he were the CEO of a reporting agency, that’s exactly what he would do.

“I would embark on a project to get this information immediately back in the credit reporting system,” he says, then adds all he’d need to do is find an economic way to populate the missing data.

“From a business perspective, I would do it in a New York minute. Because I would immediately have a competitive advantage over my two competitors,” says Ulzheimer.

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Featured, Life Events

The 3 Secrets to Retiring Early

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The 3 Secrets to Retiring Early

You’ve likely read articles about people retiring early. Is it possible for you, and if so what will it really take? First let’s establish the age at which most people retire.

Age 66 is considered full retirement age by the Social Security Administration, but that clearly hasn’t stopped people from exiting the workforce a lot earlier. According to a 2016 Gallup survey, retirees said they stopped working at an average age of 61.

The definition of early retirement can be pretty subjective. You cannot draw from Social Security until age 62, but under certain circumstances you can begin withdrawing from your 401(k) at age 55 (age 50 if you’re a public safety employee like a firefighter). So for the purposes of this conversation we’ll peg early retirement as any age before 50.

The key to retiring early? Low expenses, no debt, and high income.

Retiring early is no easy feat, and in most situations it will require several events to occur, some of which you may not have control over. In the vast majority of cases you will need to keep your current cost of living extremely low, earn a high salary, and have little to no debt. These barriers automatically make it harder for the 42.4 million Americans with student loan debt, according to latest data from the U.S. Department of Education; the class of 2016 alone had an average of about $37,000 in loans.

Though debt always plays a factor, cost of living may be the biggest hurdle to overcome on your path to early retirement. Peter Adeney, who runs a very popular financial blog called Mr. Money Mustache, retired at 30 and has become one of the most popular names behind the FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) movement. (Pete does not reveal his last name to media to protect his family’s privacy).

But he is hardly kicking back at an island villa sipping cocktails all day. According to an interview in MarketWatch, his family of three subsists on $25,000 per year in Longmont, Colo. Not everyone is able (or willing) to cut back their expenses to fit under such a low threshold. Where you choose to live can determine how much of your income you can save. MagnifyMoney recently analyzed over 200 U.S. cities to find the best and worst places to retire early.

Choosing the right career with a high salary on the front end can be a huge boost, Travis and Amanda of the blog Freedom with Bruno saved $1 million by 30 and retired to Asheville, N.C., according to Forbes. Thanks to a career in tech they were earning a combined income of $200,000. Jeremy of Go Curry Cracker, who made nearly $140,000 per year at Microsoft, saved 70% of his income, and lived on less than $2,000 per month, also retired at 30. It is also important to know that Pete and his wife (mentioned earlier) were also in the tech industry.

Not everyone can relocate to an inexpensive region of the country due to their job or the need to be close to their family, nor do most Americans have the privilege of a six-figure salary, but there are some great lessons that can be applied to your situation, no matter your income or age.

What you would need to retire early

Regardless of salary, debt, or cost of living, having a clear and defined goal is what gives people the confidence to retire early. Without it, they wouldn’t know the amount needed to leave their jobs. You will need to know how much you should be saving toward retirement each year and how much you will need while in retirement. Bankrate has a free retirement calculator here to help you visualize your retirement savings.

The typical rule of thumb is to live off of 4% of your total retirement savings. If you can live comfortably off of $40,000 per year in retirement, you would need about $1 million by the time you retire. If you could live comfortably off of about $25,000, you would only need about $600,000; this is what Pete from Mr. Money Mustache saved when he retired. Another easy way to get to that number is by multiplying your ideal retirement income by 25. So someone needing $55,000 in retirement would need $1,375,000. Once you figure out what you would be comfortable living on, you’ll need to select quality, low-cost investments. For many early retirees this comes in the form of index funds.

If you’re looking into cutting your cost and putting more toward retirement, you may have to get creative or put some serious efforts into increasing your income. This may include keeping a car on the road that’s 19 years old, cooking for every single meal, or moving in with your adult siblings to pay off your debts. Early retirement will require serious commitment and discipline. If you’re in the right position to do it, then this may be the path for you.

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