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These Women Paid Off $262,000 Worth of Debt Using Accountability Groups

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Just a few short years ago, Janet Lombardi of Long Island, N.Y., was mired in debt. Her husband of 25 years was recently sent to prison, and she was left to face their $485,000 mortgage and $60,000 of credit card debt alone.

“Once I realized the astounding levels of debt he had accumulated, I resolved to get solvent, and I did,” Lombardi told MagnifyMoney.

Help came from an unexpected source: an accountability group. Lombardi joined a support group for people struggling with debt called Debtors Anonymous (DA), an offshoot of the well-known support group Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

Using a process similar to the 12-step program made famous by AA, the DA process includes making amends to those wronged and becoming aware of compulsive habits and characteristics that can lead to overspending. People can attend meetings at no cost with the options of face-to-face, online, or phone meetings in several languages.

After joining DA, Lombardi made some big strides in her finances: She sold the home she couldn’t afford, negotiated her credit card debt down from $60,000 to $20,000, and paid it all off over the next two years. She says she now lives solely on cash and enjoys the kind of financial stability she’d never experienced before.

Lombardi

“Having a place to openly discuss feelings around money is enormous,” Lombardi says. “And having partners to help you go over your finances and help you with day-to-day management is super helpful.”

If getting out of debt has been difficult for you, joining an accountability group might be a simple way to get the support you need. Whether you are trying to lose weight, overcome addiction, or fix your finances, those who work in a group setting are more likely to reach their goals, research has shown.

Things like stating a goal and having accountability along with action steps make all the difference in reaching that goal.

In this post, we spoke to Lombardi as well as three other women who have paid off a collective $262,000 worth of debt with the help of debt accountability groups.

3 Reasons Accountability Groups Work

The Group Effect

Studies reveal that those who explicitly state a goal or an attempt to solve a problem are 10 times more likely to reach their goal than those who don’t. In a group setting, there’s no negotiating: You’ve got to be up front about your problems along with your resolve to fix them.

Positive Peer Pressure

Dr. Robert Cialdini, a social psychologist who studies the power of social influence, is noted for observing the effects of positive peer pressure: It helps us make difficult decisions and attempt to one-up our peers (in a good way). In other words, you are more likely to strive toward a goal if you see people similar to you achieving (or going toward) the same goal.

Powerful Problem Solving and Inclusion

Group therapy is common in the world of psychotherapy and can be an effective tool for dealing with the behavioral root of money problems. A group approach to problem solving involves talking, reflection, and listening to people with different backgrounds and viewpoints. Groups can also remove the stigma and loneliness of dealing with a problem like money mismanagement.

Jessica Garbarino, 39, of Wellington, Fla., completed a popular course on money management called Financial Peace University (FPU) in 2010. The class isn’t free, with a fee of $109 to $149 to enroll. FPU was created by debt-free guru, Dave Ramsey. FPU’s course is typically taught at churches, community centers, or schools, but people can also complete the course online. For Garbarino, the group approach of tackling debt helped her pay down $8,000 while in the class and gave her the tools to get rid of another $26,000 worth of debt that same year.

Jessica Garbarino

“It made you feel like you were not alone in your financial journey,” Garbarino says. “We were all able to talk openly and honestly about our current financial situation and encourage each other.”

How to Find a Debt Accountability Group

Debt accountability groups and forums exist all over the internet. Many, like Financial Peace University and Debtors Anonymous, mainly operate as in-person meetings. Some of your favorite financial gurus might have groups you can participate in as well. Look for personal finance authors, bloggers, or experts who discuss money regularly. They may have a debt accountability group or be able to direct you to one they can vouch for. These groups can be offered in a variety of formats: in person, online (Facebook groups, Google Hangouts, webinars, website forums, etc.), or even on group conference calls.

Leslie Walsh, 48, of Sparks, Nev., is a government worker who says she paid off over $28,000 with the help of her accountability group. She found support in an unconventional arena: Facebook. Walsh joined a group started by personal finance blogger Jackie Beck of The Debt Myth. Walsh says she received support and encouragement through the Facebook group, via email, and through a debt repayment app the group’s founder created.

Leslie Walsh
Leslie Walsh

When searching for an accountability group, make sure that it’s is a good fit and that you are comfortable with the way it operates. For example, some groups have rules around confidentiality and want participants to check in regularly. Some groups are more relaxed in terms of updates and accountability. Choose a group approach that works for you and will help you reach your goal of paying off debt.

How to Get the Most Out of an Accountability Group

Rachel Gause, 38, of Richlands, N.C., completed Financial Peace University twice and now teaches the class herself. She believes firmly in the power of a group to fix your finances. After paying off $180,000 in debt as a single mom, she believes coming clean and taking responsibility helps you get the most out of a group setting.

Rachel Gause
Rachel Grause

“[Group members] must acknowledge that they have an issue with managing their personal finances,” says Gause. “People with all types of incomes have issues regardless of race, age, and education level.”

There are many ways to participate and get value out of an accountability group, but the more you put in, the more you’ll get out of it.

Here are some tips that should help:

  • Remain committed to check-in times, assignments, and times to share.
  • Be as transparent as you possibly can but avoid sharing personal details like account numbers, passwords, etc. with group members.
  • Have a plan to share with your group, but be realistic (and open) about your progress.
  • Though group advice will be helpful, remember that debt problems can be financial and legal in nature, so engage professional help when necessary.

The evidence is compelling: An accountability group could help you make strides toward eliminating your debt once and for all. But although accountability groups can be good for people who need an extra nudge toward their financial goals, remember to seek professional help when necessary. Done the right way, group accountability could be just the thing you need to make a dent in your debt.

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Featured, Health

3 Ways to Keep Medical Debt from Ruining Your Credit

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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.

Turns out, your physical well-being isn’t the only thing at stake when you go to the hospital. So too is your financial well-being. That’s because no debt is more common than medical debt.

The numbers are staggering in their scope. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, more than half of all collection notices on consumer credit reports stem from outstanding medical debt, and roughly 43 million consumers – nearly 20% of all those in the nationwide credit reporting system – have at least one medical collection on their credit report.

Now, you might be inclined to think that because you’re young or have both a job and health insurance, medical debt poses you no risk. Think again. According to a recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, roughly one-third of non-elderly adults report difficulty paying medical bills. Moreover, roughly 70% of people with medical debt are insured, mostly through employer-sponsored plans.

Not concerned yet? Consider that a medical collection notice on your credit report, even for a small bill, can lower your credit score 100 points or more. You can’t pay your way out of the mess after the fact, either. Medical debt notifications stay on your credit report for seven years after you’ve paid off the bill.

The good news (yes, there is good news here) is you can often prevent medical debt from ruining your credit simply by being attentive and proactive.

Pay close attention to your bills

Certainly, a considerable portion of unpaid medical debt exists on account of bills so large and overwhelming that patients don’t have the financial wherewithal to cover them. But many unpaid medical debts catch patients completely by surprise, according to Deanna Hathaway, a consumer and small business bankruptcy lawyer in Richmond, Va.

“In my experience, it’s often a surprise to people,” says Hathaway. “Most people don’t routinely check their credit reports, assume everything is fine, and then a mark on their credit shows up when they go to buy a car or home.”

The confusion often traces back to one of two common occurrences, according to Ron Sykstus, a consumer bankruptcy attorney in Birmingham, Ala.

“People usually get caught off guard either because they thought their insurance was supposed to pick something up and it didn’t, or because they paid the bill, but it got miscoded and applied to the wrong account,” says Sykstus. “It’s a hassle, but track your payments and make sure they get where they are supposed to get. I can’t stress that enough.”

Stay in your network

One of the major ways insured patients wind up with unmanageable medical bills is through services rendered – often unbeknown to the patient – by out-of-network providers, according to Kevin Haney, president of A.S.K. Benefit Solutions.

“You check into an in-network hospital and think you’re covered, but while you’re there, you’re treated by an out-of-network specialist such as an anesthesiologist, and then your coverage isn’t nearly as good,” Haney says. “The medical industry does a poor job of explaining this, and it’s where many people get hurt.”

According to Haney, if you were unknowingly treated by an out-of-network provider, it’s not unreasonable to contact the provider and ask them to bill you at their in-network rate.

“You can push back on lack of disclosure and negotiate,” Haney says. “They’re accepting much lower amounts for the same service with their in-network patients. They may do the same for you.”

Work it out with your provider BEFORE your bills are sent to collections

Even if you’re insured and are diligent about staying in-network, medical bills can still become untenable. Whether on account of a high deductible or an even higher out-of-pocket maximum, patients both insured and uninsured encounter medical bills they simply can’t afford to pay.

If you find yourself in this situation, it’s critical to understand that health care providers themselves usually do not report unpaid bills to the credit bureaus – collection agencies do. After a certain period of time, most health care providers turn unpaid debt over to a collection agency, and it’s the agency that in turn reports the debt to the credit bureaus should it remain unpaid.

“If you can keep it out of the hands of the collectors, you can usually keep it off your credit report,” says Hathaway.

The key then is to be proactive about working out an arrangement with your health care provider before the debt is ever sent to a collection agency. And make no mistake – most providers are more than happy to work with you, according to Howard Dvorkin, CPA and chairman of Debt.com.

“Trust me, no one involved with medical debt wants it to go nuclear,” says Dvorkin. “The health care providers you owe know very well how crushing medical debt is. They want to work with you, but they also need to get paid.”

If you receive a bill you can’t afford to pay in its entirety, you should immediately call your provider and negotiate, says Haney.

“Most providers, if the bill is large, will recognize there’s a good chance you don’t have the money to pay it off all at once, and most of the time, they’ll work with you,” he says. “But you have to be proactive about it. Don’t just hope it will go away. Call them immediately, explain your situation, and ask for a payment plan.”

If the bill you’re struggling with is from a hospital, you may also have the option to apply for financial aid, according to Thomas Nitzsche, a financial educator with Clearpoint Credit Counseling Solutions, a personal finance counseling firm.

“Most hospitals are required to offer financial aid,” says Nitzsche. “They’ll look at your financials to determine your need, and even if you’re denied, just the act of applying usually extends the window within which you have to pay that bill.”

If all else fails, negotiate with the collection agency

In the event that your debt is passed along to a collection agency, all is not immediately lost, says Sykstus.

“You can usually negotiate with the collection agency the same as you would with the provider,” he says. “Tell them you’ll work out a payment plan and that in return you’re asking them to not report it.”

Most collection agencies, according to Haney, actually have little interest in reporting debt to the credit bureaus.

“Think about it,” Haney says. “The best leverage they have to get you to pay is to threaten to report the bill to the credit agencies. That means as soon as they report it, they’ve lost their leverage. So, they’re going to want to talk to you long before they ever report it to the bureau. Don’t duck their calls. Talk to them and offer to work something out. They’ll usually take what they can get.”

At the end of the day, according to Haney, most people can keep medical debt from ruining their credit by following one simple rule.

“Just be proactive,” he says.

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Featured

The One Financial Resolution You Need in 2017: Automation

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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.

“Out of sight, out of mind” isn’t typically the kind of advice you get from a financial professional. However, taking some financial decisions off of your mind and out of your hands can be one of the smartest money decisions you’ll ever make. We’re talking about the power of automation. Automating most or all of your recurring financial decisions can be a huge help when it comes to saving, investing, and digging yourself out of debt.

Even better, many popular financial resolutions for the new year — paying off debt, building an emergency fund, investing, saving for a large purchase, and building your credit score — are easy to automate.

What Is Automation?

Dr. Barry Schwartz, a behavioral economist and author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, says we may be naturally programmed to live in the here and now and think about the future when we get there. By learning to use tools and life hacks to automatically make choices for our financial well-being, we’re removing one of the biggest barriers toward financial health: ourselves.

“People have a hard time thinking accurately about risk, and they have a very hard time giving adequate weight to the future,” says Dr. Schwartz. “Automated investment would address both of these problems. But, of course, the software would have to be doing the right thing for the client rather than the company.”

When you automate, you eliminate the opportunity for that negative feeling to affect your decisions because you won’t be actively making that payment.

7 Ways Automation Can Help You Keep Your 2017 Resolutions

If your goal this year is to learn budgeting, save up for a large purchase, or simply try to better manage your finances, automation can be a huge help.

  1. Automate Your Budget

Creating a budget is the easy part. Following it becomes the real challenge.Try these two automation hacks to stick with your budget in 2017.

Create a bank account for your allowance

  1. Open up a secondary checking account with your bank, but don’t get a debit card for this one. The account will act as your “reserve” account. You’ll keep your fixed and flexible spending money there and schedule bills to be paid from this account.
  2. Figure out how much money you can freely spend each week (after your bills are paid).
  3. Set up an automatic weekly transfer from your reserve account to your “spending” account (main checking account) for that amount.

It will be like getting a weekly allowance to spend on whatever you want, just like in middle school.

Use apps that do the math for you

Sometimes all we need is a little nudge to follow through with our goals. Budgeting apps like Level Money, Budgt, or Daily Budget can be the reminder you need to keep to your budget each day. The apps take into account your income, fixed expenses, and savings goal to come up with a daily spending number.

Level Money will connect to your bank accounts and generate the number automatically, while Budgt and Daily Budget require you to enter your spending manually, then generate what you have left to spend for the day. The apps will notify you daily with how much cash you can spend each day and still stick to your budget.

  1. Automate Routine Expenses

This one is for anyone who has ever walked into a grocery store to buy a gallon of milk but walked out with bags full of things they didn’t really need.

You can save time and money on groceries by avoiding the grocery store. That doesn’t mean you have to stop buying groceries and splurge on dining out. Automate your grocery shopping with services such as AmazonFresh or Fresh Direct. The services cost about $150 to $200 annually. With these services, you are able to compare prices and add and subtract items from your cart to stay on budget, then schedule your delivery time.

You could also try a meal delivery service like HelloFresh or Plated to deliver fresh ingredients coupled with recipes for meals weekly. Using these services, dinner for two costs about $10 to $15 a person. If you’re a couple that dines out often, scheduling weekly meal delivery and cooking could help you cut back significantly on spending.

If you live in an urban area like New York or Los Angeles, you may have several other options for grocery delivery available to you.

  1. Automate Your Savings

Automation makes it easy to set aside funds for an emergency fund or a large purchase such as a down payment for a home.

….at work

If you get paid via direct deposit, check with the human resources department at your place of employment to see if you can split your paycheck into different accounts. If you can, send the amount you want to save from each check into your savings account. If your pay is inconsistent, you may be able to set this amount as a percentage of your pay.

If your human resources department doesn’t offer that option or you simply want to handle it on your own, you can set up an automatic transfer to your savings account and schedule it for the dates you get paid.

…on your smartphone

You can also try automated savings software such as Digit, Qapital, or Simple.

Digit, backed by Google’s venture arm, analyzes your spending habits then uses an algorithm to determine how much it can transfer to your Digit savings account and how often to make transfers. When you need the money, you can have it transferred in one business day by sending a text.

Qapital lets you set savings goals and rules to match them, then automatically transfers money toward your goal when the rule applies. For example, you can set a savings goal to purchase $200 tickets to a music festival, then set a rule to round up all purchases you make with your debit card to the next dollar and save the difference. Qapital will transfer the difference to the account designated for your festival tickets.

Some new digital banks have added budgeting tools. Simple, for example, calculates a “safe-to-spend” number so you know how much you can spend freely.

  1. Automate Your Investments

You don’t have to be a financial whiz to invest your money. If you plan to start investing this year, you can do so passively with automation.

An important and easy way to do this is to automate savings to your retirement account(s). If you contribute to a 401(k) or an IRA through your employer, you can set a contribution as a percentage of each paycheck. Some plan providers allow you to automate annual contribution increases. This way, you’re automatically saving more each year without having to do any extra legwork. Even an annual increase of 1% or 2% can drastically improve your savings outlook.

If you use robo-adviser services like Betterment or Stash, set up auto deposits for your accounts and let them grow. Acorns is a great tool for beginners to automate investing. Acorns rounds up each of your transactions to the nearest dollar, then invests the difference.

You can find more details about these apps, such as what fees they might charge to manage your investments, here.

  1. Automate Your Student Loan Payments

If you resolved to stay on top of your student loan payments this year, setting up automatic payments could be tremendously helpful. Automating your payment can help ensure you pay on time each month. With most servicers, you’ll get the added benefit of .25% off interest on your loans.

If you want to pay back your loans faster, you can automate an additional payment to all of your accounts when you set up direct debit. If you can’t set up an automatic additional payment to a specific loan, you can set alerts with a calendar or a budgeting app to remind you to make an additional payment to your loans on payday.

  1. Automate All Your Bills

You can automate most recurring bills like your rent, credit card payment, auto loan payment, utilities, and subscription services to avoid missed payments. This tactic can also help time your payments to ensure you have enough money in your accounts to cover them. There are several options to help schedule bills you know need to be paid each month.

Choose whichever of the following methods work best for you:

  • Set up automatic bill pay through your bank’s online banking platform.
  • Use a budgeting app like Mint, Level Money, or YNAB to link to your accounts and schedule automatic payments.
  • Set up an automatic debit with each individual service provider through their online platform or over the phone.

If you pay an individual each month for something like rent or shared utilities, you can pay them via automatic bill pay to their bank account, or set up automatic payments using a tool like PayPal.

  1. Automate Your Credit Makeover

If your goal is to improve your credit, paying bills on time and lowering your utilization rate are the two most powerful things you can do.

Debitize lets you use your credit card like a debit card. The app automatically transfers money from your checking account to pay off charges to your credit card with money. You’ll be using your credit card, then paying it off in full each month. Even better, it’s more difficult to overspend, since you’ll be using up the funds in your checking account.

If you’re building or rebuilding your score with a secured card or a new credit card, you can try this “set it and forget it” method:

  1. Figure out what 20% of your credit limit is. Example: 20% of $200 is $40.
  2. Find something that you pay for each month that costs less than that. This might be a payment for a streaming service such as Hulu, Netflix, or Spotify.
  3. Set up your account to take the payment from your credit card each month.
  4. Set up your checking account to pay your credit card balance each month.
  5. Watch your score grow with a credit monitoring service like Mint or Credit Karma.

When your score reaches the high 600s or mid-700s, you’ll have an easier time qualifying to borrow large amounts for an auto loan or a mortgage.

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Featured

Guide to Handling Your Financial Life After Divorce

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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.

Guide to Handling Your Financial Life After Divorce

Divorce is often a time of financial upheaval. Dan Burges, a financial adviser and Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA) with Ameriprise in Southlake, Texas, says, “Everything is different. Even if you are in the same house and same job, it is different. Your bills aren’t cut in half, but your income might be. You may even be spending more for child support and alimony.” So while it may be tempting to go on a spending spree to celebrate your newfound freedom – or go into hibernation mode and ignore your money altogether – it’s more important than ever to get educated about handling your financial life after divorce.

Don’t make rash decisions

Many people who are still reeling emotionally from a divorce are prone to making rash decisions they later regret, such as buying or selling real estate, cashing in retirement assets, or changing jobs or even cities. Take time to process and get yourself together — financially and emotionally — before you make any large purchases or other big financial moves.

Avoid the temptation to indulge in “retail therapy” after a divorce, whether to dull the pain, prove to yourself that you can still maintain your same standard of living, or just replace the material objects in your life with ones that don’t remind you of married life. If you must spend money, at least try to avoid using credit cards. Otherwise, bad decisions will just make your problems worse.

Set up your finances for success

The first step to managing your finances after divorce is to create a budget. “It’s especially important to think beyond your monthly expenses, such as mortgage and electricity,” says Avani Ramnani, a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) and CDFA with Francis Financial in New York, N.Y. “Think about one-time expenses such as vacations, weekend trips, and emergencies. People tend to forget about them.” Ramnani says you should also remember expenses relating to your home. “If you own your own home, something is always breaking down or needing repair. You need to account for these,” she adds.

Burges agrees that budgeting is essential in your new circumstances, and he recommends looking at your cash flow daily. “You’ve got the app on your phone,” he says, “Don’t be scared to look at it.”

Budgeting can also help you avoid getting deep into credit card debt, a common problem when people are adjusting to a new standard of living after divorce. Burges says he sees too many people with debt piling up before they realize it.

In addition to budgeting, there are several steps you should take to get your finances in order after a divorce.

Get all assets in your own name

If you kept the family home after the divorce, you need to refinance the mortgage to have your ex-spouse’s name removed from the loan. Just as you did when you initially took out the mortgage, you will have to apply for a loan and go through the underwriting process. But this time, the lender will look only at your income and credit so you will have to be able to qualify on your own. If the refinance is approved, you can have your ex-spouse’s name taken off of the deed to the property by filing a quitclaim deed. An experienced attorney can help with this. If you cannot qualify to refinance the mortgage in your name alone, your best course of action may be to sell the home and move on.

Bank accounts that were owned jointly may need to be closed and the assets transferred to new accounts in your name only. Typically, your bank will not be able to just remove your ex-spouse’s name from the account, even if the divorce decree assigns the account to you.

Cancel joint expenses

Any credit cards issued in both names will have to be closed and accounts reopened in your name. Think about other costs that were shared jointly such as utilities, auto loans, and leases.

Even if the divorce decree specifies that your ex-spouse is responsible for a debt, if any joint debts still have your name on them, missed payments will continue to affect your credit score.

Before you close any joint credit card accounts, consider opening a few accounts in your name. Once you start closing credit cards, your credit score will take a hit. Opening a few cards in your own name before you close the old accounts will ensure you continue to have access to credit.

While you’re at it, change the passwords on all your account pages, especially if they were known to your ex-spouse or partner.

Rebuild your credit

If your credit accounts were jointly held with your ex-spouse, they might be closed as part of the divorce process, and you may need to start rebuilding your own credit.

Part of your credit score is based on the length of your credit history, so closing all of your existing accounts and opening new accounts will negatively impact your credit score.

You may have also racked up debt to pay attorney fees or other expenses related to separating and setting up a new household. Your budget can help you plan for paying credit card bills and other debt payments.

Get into the habit of checking your credit report at least annually by pulling a copy of your credit report from all three credit bureaus for free through AnnualCreditReport.com. Watch out for other services that promise a free copy of your credit report but require you to sign up for other services.

Once you get your credit report, review all information to make sure that there are no errors and that none of your ex’s accounts or information are on your credit report. If you do find any issues, contact the credit bureau to have the error corrected.

Prioritize paying off debt

If you come away from the divorce with a lot of debt, make it a priority to pay it off as soon as possible. If you are living on a tight budget, that may mean being more frugal or getting a second job to bring in extra money.

Save money

Make sure your budget includes setting aside money for the future. Ramnani recommends taking stock of all of the assets you have left after a divorce – retirement, non-retirement, and real estate – to figure out if they are enough to last for the long term. “If a woman is dependent on spousal maintenance, at some point that will stop,” she says.

That’s because spousal support payments are rarely permanent, unless the spouse receiving payments is elderly or has health problems. The courts typically award alimony on a temporary basis in order to allow a former spouse time to complete an education program or get back into the job market. “You may think you can just live off of savings after the maintenance payments stop, but is it really enough to sustain you long term? Those questions can be difficult to face,” Ramnani says.

If a woman receives spousal support from her ex, Ramnani recommends setting aside spousal support payments for long-term savings.

A financial adviser can help you model your financial situation based on income, savings, Social Security, and other assets to see whether you have enough to continue your way of life or whether you need to make other plans to support yourself.

Consider hiring new financial professionals

Married couples often share financial and tax advisers. Should you continue working with the same professionals after a divorce or hire your own to avoid conflicts of interest? Burges says that decision is very personal. “Consider how much you trust that person. If the financial adviser and your ex were college roommates, then you should find someone else,” he says. “You need to feel confident that whatever you say to your adviser isn’t being repeated to your ex-spouse.”

Ramnani agrees that people should make their own decisions about whether to stay with the same adviser or find a new one. “At the end of the divorce process,” she says, “take stock and think about what makes the most sense.”

In some cases, your ex-spouse may have handled all of the finances, and this is your first time managing them on your own. Make sure you have someone with experience to help you navigate your new reality. Ramnani and her firm specialize in working with women going through emotionally traumatic life events. She says many of the women that come to her felt like their adviser had lost track of them since their ex-husbands were more involved.

Burges also recommends working with a certified public accountant the first time you file your taxes after a divorce, even if you are used to doing your taxes yourself. “Your taxes may be super simple,” he says, “but a CPA will ask you questions about things you may not have thought of before.”

Change beneficiaries on all of your assets

Changing beneficiaries is another important step to managing your finances after divorce. Most likely, your ex-spouse was named as a beneficiary on life insurance policies, auto insurance, retirement plans, annuities, and bank and brokerage accounts.

Burges points out, “if you switch advisers, you’ll have to set up new beneficiaries, so that is one way to clean up.”

If you and your ex have minor children, talk to your attorney before you name a minor child as a beneficiary. You may need to set up a trust. Otherwise, your ex-spouse may get control over any assets left to your kids.

You should also talk to your attorney about updating health care directives, living wills, and powers of attorney, so your ex-spouse isn’t in control if you are incapacitated.

Handling joint expenses

Divorced couples with children often need to continue sharing certain costs, such as summer camps, college expenses, and field trips, long after the divorce is finalized. What is the best way to handle these ongoing conversations?

In these cases, it pays to plan ahead. Ramnani says most attorneys today consider those items when drawing up the divorce agreement, and a good financial adviser can help you make sure all of your bases are covered if you let them take a look at the agreement while it is still in proposal form.

Burges recommends getting the divorce decree to explain, in detail, what child support covers. “Some people see child support as strictly covering a roof over their head, food, and clothing,” he says. Consider who will be responsible for paying for medical care, school fees and supplies, child care, extracurricular activities, music or dance lessons, your child’s first car, and even entertainment and travel expenses. “Try to get your lawyer to define what the child support is for. It may be something you argue about during the divorce process, but it will be worth it in the end. Set yourself up for success,” Burges says.

Ramnani also recommends keeping very detailed records of any joint expenses in case of disagreements. In the end, though, she says, “that’s the reality of life. If you share children, you still have to deal with each other. Hopefully, it’s at least a cordial relationship so you can speak openly.”

Dealing with college financial aid

Applying for college and navigating financial aid can be a stressful time for divorced couples. No matter your financial situation, you have to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in order for you or your child to access assistance from federal, state, and college financial aid programs.

Your FAFSA is used to determine your family’s ability to contribute funds for college. In order to arrive at that calculation, the application requests household income.

A divorce decree may allow one parent to claim the child as a dependent, even if the child lives with the other parent 90% of the time. For FAFSA purposes, who the child lives with matters because that parent’s income will be used to calculate their financial aid need. If maximizing college aid is a priority, it might make sense for the child to reside with the parent with the lowest income. In that case, the lower-earning parent should claim the child as a dependent on their tax return in the year before the child applies to college.

Gray divorce presents unique challenges

“Gray divorce” is the term for the divorce trend of Americans age 50 and older, and a 2013 study by researchers at Bowling Green State University found that the divorce rate among couples age 50 or older doubled between 1990 and 2012. While divorce can be a blow to the finances of couples at any age, it can be especially damaging for older couples who are close to retirement.

Burges says many retirement plans are made based on the couple not getting divorced. “Pensions, 401(k)s, annuities. You’ve been putting a plan together, then your assets get cut in half but your expenses in retirement don’t. That can be a massive setback on your retirement plan. He says the knee-jerk reaction is that you won’t be able to retire when you thought you would. “And that’s often true unless you’re able to really step up your retirement savings. If you’re 10 years or less out, that’s hard to do.”

The bottom line

Handling your financial life after divorce starts with a realistic evaluation of your current situation. That can be difficult to face if you are still reeling emotionally from the split or find yourself with more expenses and less income than you are used to working with. If you find it too difficult to do on your own, consult with a CDFA who will take the time to figure out where you are, where you want to go, and how to get there.

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Featured, Investing

Hidden Fees That Could Ravage Your Investments

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.

Hidden Fees That Could Ravage Your Investments

Most of the time higher quality things cost more money. As the saying goes, “you get what you pay for.”

But the opposite is true when it comes to investing. Research has shown again and again that lower cost investments perform better. Quite simply, the less you pay, the more likely you are to get better returns.

And the great thing is that cost is one of the few investment variables you can really take charge of. You can’t control or predict how the markets will perform, but you can definitely control how much you pay to be in the market.

The bottom line is that finding lower cost investments is one of the easiest and most effective ways to increase your investment returns. Here’s how to do it.

Two Big Investment Costs to Watch Out For

For most people, the majority of their investment costs will come from the following two places. If you can minimize these two things, you’ll be in good shape.

1. Expense Ratio

Every mutual fund or exchange-traded fund (ETF) has something called an expense ratio, which is simply the annual cost of investing in the fund. That money is used to pay for the cost of managing and administrating the fund for you.

The expense ratio is charged as a percent of the money you have invested in the fund. So if a particular mutual fund has an expense ratio of 1%, that means that 1% of the money you have invested in that fund will be taken out as a fee each year.

And while 1% may not sound like much, it can add up to a huge difference over a long period of time. Assuming you contribute $5,500 per year and earn an 8% annual return, a 1% difference in fees will likely lead to more than a $100,000 difference in retirement savings over a 30-year period.

In other words, you’ll want to pay close attention to your expense ratios and minimize them as much as possible. Most good mutual funds these days have expense ratios of 0.2% or lower, though some specialized funds might go as high as 0.5%.

2. Sales Loads

Sales load is a fancy term for commission. It’s a percent of your investment that goes to the person who sold it to you.

For example, if you contribute $1,000 to a mutual fund that has a 5% sales load, only $950 will actually go into the fund. The other $50 will go to the person who sells you that mutual fund. And that will be true for every additional contribution you make to that fund in the future.

There are two big things to understand about sales loads:

  1. Not all mutual funds or ETFs have them. In fact, it’s pretty easy to avoid them.
  2. Research has shown that mutual funds with sales loads underperform those that don’t have them.

For those reasons, it will usually make sense to avoid mutual funds that have a sales load. There are simply better options out there.

Four Other Investment Costs to Watch Out For

While expense ratios and sales loads are the two biggest costs to watch out for, there are plenty more to keep an eye on. Here are four of the most common.

  1. Trading Fees

Depending on the company you use to do your investing, you may be charged a fee each time you buy or sell an investment. For example, E*TRADE currently charges $9.99 per ETF trade (with some exceptions) and between $0 and $19.99 for mutual fund trades.

And while that may not sound like much, it can add up pretty quickly. If you make monthly contributions to three ETFs, you’ll end up paying about $360 per year just for the privilege of contributing.

Of course, there are ways around this. For example, major investment companies like Vanguard, Schwab, and Fidelity allow you to trade their own funds for free. And many ETFs are commission-free on certain platforms. So there are plenty of ways to eliminate or at least minimize this cost.

  1. Taxes

If you’re investing in a retirement account like a 401(k) or IRA, you don’t need to worry about taxes until you start taking withdrawals.

But every trade within a taxable account is subject to potential taxes, and the more you trade, the more you may have to pay. And even if you never sell anything, the mutual funds you own will make trades, and those tax consequences will be passed on to you.

We all have to pay our fair share in taxes, but there’s no need to take on more than that. In general, the less often you trade, and the more tax-efficient your investments, the less you’ll have to pay in taxes.

  1. Management Fees

Whether you work with an investment adviser who manages your money for you or you invest through a company like Betterment, there’s a cost to having someone else in charge of your investments.

And while that cost can be worth it, make sure you know what you’re getting and that you’re not paying more than you should.

  1. Account Maintenance Fees

Some companies will charge you a monthly or annual fee simply for the service of providing you with an account.

These can often be avoided by meeting certain conditions. For example, Vanguard charges a $20 annual fee for IRAs, but it’s waived if you either sign up for e-delivery of statements or you have a certain total account balance with them.

In some cases, like with health savings accounts, a small maintenance fee might be unavoidable. But in most cases there’s no need to incur this kind of cost.

The Bottom Line: Lower Costs = Better Returns

Watching out for fees may sound kind of boring, but it’s one of the easiest and most effective ways to improve your investment returns.

Remember, not only does a smaller fee mean that more of your money is invested, but the research shows that lower cost investments actually perform better.

It’s a double win that you should definitely be taking advantage of.

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Featured

7 Signs That Identity Protection Service Isn’t Worth It

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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.

7 Signs That Identity Protection Service Isn’t Worth It

According to a report released by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), identity theft complaints increased by 47% from 2013 to 2015. Needless to say, identity theft is on the rise, and many people are concerned they could become a victim. Like any crime, totally preventing identity theft is practically impossible. However, that hasn’t stopped many so-called identity theft protection and prevention companies from selling services that promise to do just that.

As a consumer, it’s important to be cautious when purchasing identity theft services simply out of fear. Sometimes, fear-based marketing tactics can cause consumers to pay or overpay for services they may not need, or worse yet, may not be even be effective.

Before we dive into the details of assessing the value of the ID theft protection service you are considering, let’s do a quick recap on the types of identity theft and common services offered to help with this issue.

A Quick Recap: Types of Identity Theft and Protection Services

Types of Identity Theft

There are two primary types of identity theft. The first is account takeover, which is more common and normally not too difficult to address. In account takeover, someone steals a credit card or gains illegal access to your bank account or credit card to make unauthorized transactions.

The second, less common and often more complicated to resolve, is identity takeover. That’s when someone assumes your identity and acts fraudulently on your behalf. Identity takeover can manifest in medical, criminal, or financial scenarios.

Common Identity Theft Protection Services

The most common offerings from identity theft protection companies are along the lines of prevention, monitoring, and resolution.

To be clear, you can reduce your risk of being an identity theft victim with good “identity hygiene” habits, but you can’t totally prevent identity fraud. An effective identity theft protection service is not prevention so much as it is early detection (monitoring) before the damage gets out of hand. Once a problem is detected, having a plan that includes resolution services (doing the legwork of fixing the fraud damage) is likely the most value you’ll get for your money.

7 Signs to Watch Out For

1. Misleading Claims and Offerings

Many consumers are reeled in with hefty promises of $1 million or $5 million in “coverage” and may not know what that coverage entails. When you see these numbers, it usually means that a company will commit up to $1 million in resources to help you through the resolution process. That might mean things like covering notarized forms or other professional services needed in the resolution process. Some companies will cover lost wages from missing work due to dealing with an ID theft incident.

In many cases, your bank or credit card company will have policies in place so that you are not liable for fraudulent transactions anyway, so the millions in “coverage” wouldn’t be applied toward recovering that property. (Some services will reimburse fraudulent transactions but with stipulations around reporting time frames, proof of criminal activity, and making sure you aren’t covered already under another benefit.) Resolution services can be extremely helpful, but they usually only run a few hundred dollars, not even close to millions!

2. Excessive Offerings

Looking at the laundry list of items that a common identity theft protection company offers can make these services look like consummate, comprehensive coverage. IDShield, a LegalShield product, promises to monitor so many things that you wonder what could fall through the cracks: 10 phone numbers, 10 email addresses, your driver’s license number, and a host of other personal data points.

With all these monitoring claims, it makes you feel good about spending that $20 or $30 per month for a service, but the fact of the matter is that it’s highly unlikely that you’ll get the medical ID number monitoring promised. A quick visit to the Better Business Bureau complaint section shows this to be true for many companies. Common complaints for identity theft protection services reveal monitoring and alerts don’t always happen as promised. In these complaints, people report moving, opening new accounts, and other activities they are sure should trigger alerts, but receive no notifications.

3. Services You Can Do Yourself or Already Have Coverage For

Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) says there are many things you can do yourself if you have the time. ITRC provides resources for helping people execute the DIY version of identity fraud resolution. Velasquez feels you shouldn’t be shut out of help in the midst of an identity fraud crisis because you don’t have the money to handle it.

Velasquez also encourages people to check other places they might already have identity theft protection benefits in place at low or no charge. Insurance riders, employee benefit packages, credit cards, credit unions, banks, or motor clubs are are few places where protections could already be in place for you.

4. Aggressive or Questionable Marketing Tactics

When a data breach occurs, the company whose customers’ information was compromised typically offers identity theft protection services to these customers at no charge. The provider of these services is call the data breach vendor. In the famous Target data breach of 2013, Target provided a basic service to customers through Experian’s product, ProtectMyID. There were many complaints citing Experian’s aggressive attempts to upsell vulnerable customers to monthly subscriptions because the free services offered by Target and the data breach vendor were limited in benefits.

5. Limited Offerings

In the example above, Target opted to provide data breach victims a pared-down package of the complete ProtectMyID package. This package monitored only one credit-reporting agency (CRA), while complaints surfaced of victims who would eventually face identity fraud due to the data breach and poor vigilance of their personally identifiable information post-breach.

Zander Insurance offers services that focus heavily on the resolution side. They offer monitoring of your personal information in varied capacities, but only have reminders to check your free credit report each year. Their take is that CRA monitoring provides a false sense of security and that the real value is in the resolutions services they offer.

6. Not Following Best Security Practices

Enrolling in an ID theft protection service means you’ll likely have to give your service provider a lot of your precious personal information. The idea is that they will be able to effectively monitor all the data points you provide for fraudulent activity.

If this is the case, you’ll want to make sure that your information is collected, stored, and accessed in a secure manner. A major player in the identity theft protection space, LifeLock, was fined by the FTC in 2010 and 2014 for poor information security practices, among other things.

7. Complaints, Lawsuits, and Fines

Eva Velasquez of the ITRC, who also worked for the Better Business Bureau for five years, says third-party verification agencies like the BBB can be a consumer’s best friend when vetting identity theft protection services. Search sites like Consumer Affairs and the BBB for common complaints about an ID theft protection service you are considering. The complaints section is a great resource to learn about common problems and misunderstandings with a particular ID theft protection company.

Tips on Evaluating Identity Theft Protection Services

As a reminder, these services will help you mainly with detection and resolution, not prevention. There is no perfect identity theft protection solution, only a solution that is perfect for you. To start, you’ll have to play an active role in protecting your personal information and reducing your risk for ID theft.

In the end, it’s true that there are many services you could perform on your own to resolve ID fraud, but you may not have the time. So one person’s value-add would be different for another. Read the fine print and understand exactly what you are paying for. Check third-party consumer advocacy sites with honest reviews about identity theft protection service shortfalls and gaps in coverage.

Understand your specific needs, time constraints, and risk exposure to find the solution that provides the most value, not the one that feeds off your worst fears.

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Credit Cards, Featured, Pay Down My Debt

Guide to Credit Counseling: 7 Key Questions to Ask

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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.

It’s no secret that financial education is sorely lacking in the U.S. However, this does not mean that you can’t seek financial education from reputable sources. If you have little to no knowledge on the topic of personal finance and are struggling with your finances, then you may consider credit counseling.

Credit counseling can involve a variety of services including educational materials and real-world application to your finances. Credit counselors can help you to set a budget and advise you on how to manage debt and your money in general.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), reputable credit counseling organizations have certified counselors who are trained in consumer credit, money and debt management, and budgeting. Credit counselors will work with you to come up with an individualized plan to address the money issues you are facing.

Seeking credit counseling is typically voluntary but can be required when filing for bankruptcy. In this guide, we’ll answer some key questions you might have about credit counseling and whether it’s right for you.

How Do You Find a Credit Counselor?

Before settling on a credit counseling organization, do your homework to make sure they are not only reputable but will also be the most helpful for your particular financial circumstances. Check with your state’s attorney general and the consumer protection agency present in your state to see if there have been any complaints filed.

When looking for a good credit counseling agency, first ask about what information or educational materials they provide for free. Organizations that charge for information are typically more interested in their bottom line than helping you. Also, ask about the types of services they offer. Limited services can be a red flag. The fewer services they offer, the fewer solutions they may provide you.

You do not want to be pushed into a debt management plan simply because that is their top service. And make sure you understand the organization’s fee system, not only how much services will cost but also how employees are paid. If employees make more based on the number of services you receive, look for another credit counseling organization.

MagnifyMoney has come up with a list of some of the best credit counseling options, which are a great place to start. If you are looking for credit counseling as a pre-bankruptcy measure, the U.S. Trustee Program has a list of approved credit counseling agencies that can provide pre-bankruptcy counseling.

How Much Does Credit Counseling Cost?

Credit counseling can involve both start-up and monthly maintenance costs. The Department of Justice has said that $50 per month is a reasonable fee. Further, the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) has suggested that a start-up fee should not exceed $75 and monthly maintenance fees should not be more than $50 per month.

Credit counseling agencies may offer fee waivers or fee reductions, depending on your income levels. Where credit counseling is required, the DOJ requires that if the household income is less than 150% of the poverty line, then the client is entitled to a fee waiver or reduction. While the poverty line varies depending on household size, it ranges from $11,880 for a single person family household to $24,300 for a family of four.

Other regulations, such as when fees can be collected and circumstances that would warrant fee reduction or waiver, may also be set forth by your state.

How Long Does Credit Counseling Last?

While the length of your credit counseling session depends on the complexity of your financial problems, sessions typically last 60 minutes. After the initial session, credit counselors will then follow up to ensure you understand the actions you needed to take and that you have been able to get started on the plan they developed. Another session may be necessary if you see a significant change to your financial situation.

What Do You Accomplish with Credit Counseling?

According to the NFCC, reputable counseling involves three things. First, a review of a client’s current financial situation. You cannot move forward unless you know where you are starting. Second, an analysis of the factors that contributed to the financial situation. You don’t want bad habits to undermine your progress. Lastly, a plan to address the situation without incurring negative amortization of debt. This gives you a place to start in improving your financial situation.

What Is the Difference Between Credit Counseling and Debt Management Programs?

A debt management plan is just one solution a credit counselor may recommend based on your financial situation. Having a debt management plan is not the same as credit counseling.

A debt management plan involves the credit counseling organization acting as an intermediary between you and your creditors. Each month you will deposit an agreed upon amount of money to your credit counseling agency, which will, in turn, apply it to your debts. The credit counseling agency works with your creditors to determine how the amount will be applied each month as well as negotiates interest rates and any fee waivers. It’s important to call your creditors directly to check whether they are open to negotiating interest rates or offering waivers for fees. In some cases, a credit counseling firm may promise to negotiate those things for you but be stonewalled when they discover a creditor isn’t even open to the discussion.

Before agreeing to a debt management plan, make sure you understand any fees associated with the debt management plan and any choices you might be giving up. For example, some debt management plans may have you agree to give up opening up new lines of credit for a specified period of time. Remember that a debt management plan is just one of many solutions a credit counselor may advise you to consider.

How Does Credit Counseling Impact Your Credit Score?

Not directly. While the fact you are in credit counseling may show up on a credit report, that fact does not affect your score. The actions you take as a result of credit counseling can impact your score. For example, if you don’t choose a reputable credit counseling agency, the agency may submit the payment on your behalf late to your creditors, which can damage your credit score. So even though you submitted your payment on time to the credit counseling agency, it is possible that the credit counseling agency will issue a late payment on your behalf. This is why it is important to make sure you use a reputable credit counseling agency.

Who Should Consider Credit Counseling and When?

While credit counseling is sometimes required, like in instances of bankruptcy, you always have an ability to seek credit counseling. Bankruptcy attorney Julie Franklin, based in Boston, Mass., explains, “For bankruptcy purposes, there are two course requirements — a debtor must complete the first credit counseling course prior to filing and obtain a certificate that is filed with the court in their initial bankruptcy petition documents. Post bankruptcy filing, the debtor is required to take a second course, and upon completion, the certificate that is issued must be filed with the court in order for the debtor to obtain an order of discharge.”

Anyone struggling with personal finance should consider credit counseling as a viable option so long as they use a reputable credit counseling agency. Franklin also notes that “the first credit counseling course is a tool for debtors as it compels the individual taking the course to closely examine the household assets, income, liabilities, and spending habits to determine if there’s a way to ‘save’ the debtor from having to file bankruptcy.” If you are considering bankruptcy, you will have to attend some credit counseling anyway, but it could also help you to avoid filing for bankruptcy.

Voluntary credit counseling might not help if you are already being sued to have a debt collected. However, you may be able to negotiate terms with the debt collector that result in a withdrawal of the suit if you agree to enroll in credit counseling and possibly a debt management program. Not all creditors will agree to such terms, but it is possible.

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Auto Loan, Featured, Personal Loans

5 Things You Should Do Before You Buy a Car

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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 it comes to buying a car, whether used or new, the real work should happen before you even set foot on the lot. Taking the time to go through a few crucial steps will make your time at the dealership a breeze. To top that, a few pre-checks could save you money, time, and the hassle of dealing with a bad auto purchase in the future.

When you finally get to the dealership, Jack Nerad, executive market analyst at Kelley Blue Book, says it will pay off to come with a price in mind and all of the legwork done. The salesperson is going to ask you questions like what you’re looking for, how soon you’re going to buy, if you’ve looked at other dealerships, and what you do for a living, because they want some sense that they aren’t wasting their time with you.

“Demonstrate to them in your answers that you know about your own finances and that you know largely what you want in terms of a vehicle, and it will go pretty well for you,” says Nerad.

 

Step 1: Set a budget

When you get to the lot you should already know your credit score and how much you can afford for a car. Make sure to set a budget, and stay under your budget if you can. Unless you’re paying cash for your car, you’ll likely finance or lease your vehicle, so you should figure out how much you can afford in a monthly payment. Generally, all your monthly debt payments — credit cards, auto loans, student loans, and mortgage — should not exceed 50% of your monthly income.

Outside of the value of the car, you should budget for the taxes and any other one-time costs such as title fees and dealer fees. It could also be beneficial to create some space in your personal budget for costs such as gas and insurance. You may also want to open an alternate savings account to allocate separate funds to recurring costs such as ongoing maintenance, car insurance, and any future repairs.

“They are going to try to sell you more stuff like the insurance, treatments, etc. Most of that stuff is not worth nearly what they are selling it to you for,” says Nerad. “It could hurt the deal that you’ve worked hard to get. Just say no to most of it or do it aware of the financing.”

Don’t forget to weigh your savings options. Consider putting down a larger down payment if you can. If you won’t need it anymore, selling or trading in your current vehicle can help you come up with extra funds for a down payment. You could also consider a less-expensive vehicle, cut back on the add-ons and features, or improve your credit score, to save on the overall cost of the vehicle.

Step 2: Get pre-approved for financing

Shopping for an auto loan is another tedious process, but you should have already completed the first step in setting your budget.

Your next step will be to shop for the best used-auto loan rates and get pre-approved for the best offer for which you are eligible. What’s better, you won’t need to leave your computer to shop for an auto loan. A growing number of online-only banks, such as LightStream, PenFed, and Capital One, offer competitive interest rates on auto loans. Your best bet is to get pre-approved for financing before you get to the dealership. Coupled with your budget, getting pre-approved will help you have an idea of what your monthly payment will be.

When shopping online for a used-auto loan, the application process will look like that of a brick-and-mortar bank, but more streamlined. You should have the following information at hand:

Your contact information: Name, address, phone number, email address

Vehicle information (if known — required for lenders that do not offer online pre-approval): Make, model, mileage, VIN, dealership information

Your financial information: Employment information, gross income, and expenses

While you’re at the dealership, negotiate the price of the car before telling the salesperson that you are approved for financing. When the salesperson tries to get you to finance the purchase through the dealership’s affiliated lender, you can show them your pre-approved financing offer. There is a good chance they will try to beat your pre-approved offer, which could save you thousands of dollars in interest over the life of the loan. If they can’t beat it, you’ve already found your lowest rate and can continue your vehicle purchase.

Step 3: Choose your vehicle

Research and make a decision regarding what kind of car you want. You can use websites like Kelley Blue Book, Edmunds, and TrueCar to figure out a fair purchase price.

During your search keep in mind all of the specifications that are most important to you. You should think about how you intend to use the vehicle, not just how cool you’ll look in it. If you have a long commute to work, fuel economy may be important to you. If you have small children, having enough space for a car seat could possibly weigh in your options. If you live in the city, you might want to consider how much parking parking space you’ll have access to. Get the picture? A few other considerations:

Do you want a new car or a used vehicle?

Do you want to lease or purchase?

Do you need all-wheel drive?

Do you need a lot of cargo capacity?

How many passengers do you need to carry?

What type of driving do you do: highway, surface streets, off-road?

What safety features are important to you?

Will you drive in ice and snow?

Will you be doing any towing?

Again, think about what you need in addition to what you want.

When it comes to add-ons, remember anything you add — line items such as tire treatments, insurance, etc. — will be factored into the total purchase price and financing. The salesperson at the dealership may try to get you to purchase more than you bargained for, so come in knowing what you want to add on and where your line is drawn in your budget.

Step 4: Pick the right dealership

Next, you should find out who has the car you want within your budget. Back in the day, you would have combed through newspaper advertisements or had to visit several dealerships in person to see the cars you’re interested in. Now, with the internet, you can view multiple cars at several dealerships in your area and set filters to make sure they have what you want, for the price you want.

“More often than not the sales process is going to depend on the dealership and training of the salespeople there. If you come in knowledgeable, then you are going to be in a way better position,” says Katherine Hutt, director of communications at the Better Business Bureau.

After you get a healthy list of the dealerships in your area that have the car you want, you should check out their ratings on the Better Business Bureau website. Search for auto dealers in your area to find out which ones are BBB accredited, then look at the company’s profile to see if and why they have had any complaints filed against them.

Checking the dealerships for any serious complaints regarding their sales tactics or a negative rating will help you decide which ones are worth visiting.

Step 5: Run a background check on the car you want

Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS) is a consumer advocacy group for the auto industry best known for leading the nationwide adoption of the lemon law, which entitles consumers to reimbursement or compensation if they are sold a vehicle that fails to perform as it was expected to within a certain amount of time.

Founder Rosemary Shahan encourages consumers to check the vehicle’s background by getting a vehicle history report through resources such as the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, CARFAX, and AutoCheck.

In the vehicle history report you should check…

Name and description

Check the name and description that pops up to make sure the car you are looking at is the same as the car in the report. This will help you avoid VIN cloning, a type of vehicle fraud that involves using a VIN from another registered car and putting it on a stolen or similar vehicle, as well as other forms of vehicle fraud. Check for the name, color, and even details like the engine type to make sure you have the right car.

Number of owners

The number of owners a vehicle has had should be weighed cautiously in your consideration. You can’t be sure that each owner was a responsible and caring car owner like you, but the chance that the car has had a bad owner rises with the number of owners it has had. However, there is no magic number of owners that will disqualify a used car. Overall, you should place more import on the vehicle’s mechanical condition and how it has been cared for than on the number of owners it’s had.

Routine maintenance

Check to see that the car was regularly serviced. If it was, it will usually last longer and may be more expensive in general. The details about the vehicle’s maintenance may also help you answer any questions you may have about its repairs or servicing. If you know where its other owners took it for servicing, you can call up those locations and ask them if they can clear up anything that concerns you.

Anything suspicious

Be sure to ask about records that don’t quite line up. For example, if you see any records of body work but no reported incident, you should look into why the vehicle got work done. It’s not often that owners want a new side door and coat of paint just to spruce up the vehicle. It’s more likely that there may have been an accident that prompted the body work.

Finally, have the car looked at by an unaffiliated mechanic before buying no matter who you choose to purchase from. You can use a resource like Car Talk to find a mechanic in your area.
When you’ve checked off these steps, pay attention to what the salesperson tells you to make sure you get the best deal.

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Featured, Reviews

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

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.

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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Building Credit, Credit Cards, Featured

Where to Get Your Credit Report for Free

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.

Where to Get Your Credit Report for Free

If you haven’t checked your credit report lately, you’re not alone. A 2016 survey conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International found more than half — about 54% — of Americans hadn’t even checked their credit score — the number constructed from factors in your credit report — within the past year. What’s worse, almost a quarter of respondents had never checked their score, making them extremely vulnerable to financial crime. Checking your credit report may seem like any other financial chore, but you shouldn’t keep placing it on the back burner. Similarly to getting a check-up at the doctor’s office, checking your credit report is a preventative measure you should take at least once a year with a bonus: it’s free.

What Is a Credit Report?

Your credit report paints a financial picture of your life. It is a complete history of your use of credit going back at least seven years, good and bad. This includes credit card accounts, student and personal loans, and mortgages, and information about how you use them such as payment history or accounts that have gone to collections. It may also include any utility and other bills that have gone unpaid and were sent to collections. There are three main companies that track your credit report: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.

Don’t confuse your credit report with your FICO credit score. Your credit score is a numerical figure that is calculated by using the information from your credit reports. Banks and lenders weigh information from your credit report to create a credit score to gauge how responsible you are when it comes to credit. If your credit reports show a solid history of on-time payments and a good mix of different types of loans, your score will reflect that. Likewise, if your credit report shows lots of missed payments and debt collection accounts, you can expect a poor score.

Knowing the information that is currently on your credit report can help you stay ahead of fraudsters and give you details about how you can improve your credit score. If you don’t check your credit report annually, you may not be able to accurately track the health of your credit score, or know when someone has used stolen personal information from you. In addition to those benefits, checking your reports annually can be an exciting way to benchmark your financial progress.

Where to Get Free Credit Reports

You should check your credit report annually for yourself, but you may also need a report to apply for a car loan or to rent an apartment, etc. When you do need a copy of your report, you can get one for free from a few sources.

You are entitled to one free copy of your credit report every 12 months from each of the three nationwide credit reporting bureaus. You can order a free copy of your credit report from all three bureaus from AnnualCreditReport.com. Like the name implies, you can only order each report once a year for free.

Since you only get one free report from each of the three bureaus per year, stagger them throughout the year. For example, once every four months, request a report from one of the bureaus.

If you want to get an update on your credit report more than once a year, but you don’t want to pay for it, there are a bunch of tools out there that offer credit monitoring for free.

Credit.com offers a Credit Report Card tool to monitor your Experian credit report. All you need to do is go to credit.com, and click “Free Credit Report Card” under the “Credit Cards & Score” tab to create an account. The report card updates every 14 days.

Credit Karma gives you access to your TransUnion and Equifax credit reports for free. You can also sign up for their free credit and account monitoring services. If you do, you’ll receive an email alert whenever your credit score changes, and you’ll be notified whenever a new account is opened. The reports update weekly.

Credit Sesame gives you access to your TransUnion credit report via their credit monitoring service. The service updates your report each month.

Mint.com, a free money-management website and app, gives anyone with a Mint account access to their free Equifax credit report. The report is updated every 30 to 60 days.

Quizzle offers a free VantageScore — a scoring model developed by all three credit bureaus — and a free Equifax credit report, which is updated every six months.

Once You Have Your Report

Once you see your credit report, you should check it carefully for any wrong or negative information impacting your credit score. Double check to make sure the open accounts reported all belong to you. Check that the payment information is accurate and all of the account balances are correct. If you find any errors, you should dispute them directly through the bureau websites. MagnifyMoney has a more in-depth guide about how to do that here.

You might not see any errors, but realize that you need to work on rebuilding your credit. A healthy credit score can be very helpful to you when making a large purchase like a car or first home. MagnifyMoney’s complete guide to help you rebuild your credit can be found here.

You may also notice that you’ve been a victim of identity fraud. That may take a few more steps to clear up, but you can find what to do here.

 

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