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6 Mistakes to Avoid When Paying Off Debt

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

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On the surface, getting debt-free sounds like a simple process. Make your minimum payments each month and get your balances to zero, then you’re across the finish line. But with interest rates steadily on the rise, this isn’t much of a strategy. It’s a surefire — and expensive — way to keep yourself chained to debt for much longer than you need to be.

The truth is that saving the most money and getting out from under debt as quickly as possible comes down to learning the basics.

Here’s a rundown of the top mistakes to avoid while on the road to debt-free living.

1. Continuing to accumulate new debt

Deciding to take charge of your debt once and for all is an empowering move, especially when you start seeing those balances go down. But accelerating your payments on one account while continuing to rack up new debt is hardly a solution.

“You may feel better because you’re sending an extra $500 to your credit card every month to pay it down, but if you’re using a different credit card to buy groceries, you’re just cycling the debt around,” Michaela Harper, director of community education at the Credit Advisors Foundation, told MagnifyMoney.

This all-too-common scenario underscores how important it is to have an effective budget in place, which requires a firm grasp on your monthly income and expenses. If you’re spending more than you’re earning, you’ll never break the debt cycle.

Vid Ponnapalli, a New Jersey-based certified financial planner, recommends looking back and tracking your spending over the past six months. This should highlight any gaps between your spending and your income.

“If you’re bringing in $4,000 each month but spending an average of $4,500, you need to remedy that deficit,” he told MagnifyMoney. “This means either reducing your expenses or increasing your income.”

Crafting a solid budget is your best defense.

2. Focusing on the wrong debt

Not all debt is created equal. When you’re in over your head, Harper said to focus first on “people who can mess with you — [anyone who has] a judgment against you or has the ability to put liens on you.” Having your wages garnished or your car repossessed are never scenarios in which you want to find yourself.

From there, high-interest balances should be front and center because you’re paying the most to keep them around. This is precisely why it makes sense to roll these balances over to accounts that have lower interest rates. This process is called debt consolidation.

Let’s say your debt looks like this and you’re paying $150 a month on each account:

  • Credit card No. 1: $5,000 at 19% interest
  • Credit card No. 2: $2,000 at 14% interest
  • Credit card No. 3: $1,000 at 10% interest

Going that route will take you four years to pay everything off, and you’ll dole out $2,383 in interest alone (if you stick to $150 payments even after certain cards are paid off). But if you take all that debt and pay it off with a two-year debt consolidation loan at 8%, you’ll cut your interest payments by almost $1,700, lower your monthly payment by about $100 — and be debt-free in half the time.

Many debt consolidation loans come with an origination fee of up to 6%, but your savings could very well make up for it. To explore your loan options, consider using this debt consolidation loan tool from LendingTree, MagnifyMoney’s parent company. The tool could match you with up to five different lenders offering competitive loan options.

3. Tapping your 401(k) to pay off debt

Let’s talk 401(k) loans, which let you borrow from your future self and then gradually pay it back with interest, usually via automatic payroll deductions. You have five years to repay these loans, and the interest rate is generally the current prime rate plus 1%.

When face to face with a mountain of debt, it can be very tempting to use your retirement nest egg to wipe out your balances and start over, but think very carefully before doing so.

First, there can be significant tax implications. You’re putting pretax money into a 401(k). But when you’re paying back a 401(k) loan, you’re using after-tax dollars, Ponnapalli said. Then you have to pay taxes again when you withdraw the money during retirement.

What’s more, Ponnapalli said if you fail to make good on your loan terms, the loan is then considered a distribution. If you’re younger than 59 ½, you’ll also pay a 10% penalty.

“And if you leave your job for any reason, the balance will be due, in full, much sooner than originally planned,” he added. (Check your individual plan for details.)

By taking your money out of the market, you’re robbing yourself of future gains as well. Where retirement savings are concerned, your No. 1 weapon is time. The longer you’re invested, the more money you’ll have waiting for you come retirement.

4. Falling for a debt relief scam

When you’re overwhelmed by debt, navigating the situation on your own can feel impossible. Credit counseling is a legitimate option if you go with a reputable company that has your best interests at heart. American Consumer Credit Counseling and the National Foundation for Credit Counseling have strong reputations.

Through these groups, you can connect with professionals who’ll review your financial situation, educate you on personal finance basics and — hopefully — empower you to get back on the right track. Credit counselors also help clients create a plan of attack for addressing their outstanding debt.

But consumers are wise to beware of shady debt relief organizations. For-profit credit counseling groups are generally a red flag, as are companies that make too-good-to-be-true promises or guarantees about debt relief.

Harper said initial counseling sessions should be free and have no strings attached. He recommended going with one of the nationally recognized groups. “You’ll have assurance that you’re dealing with a reputable organization and staff that knows what they’re doing,” Harper said.

5. Neglecting your other financial goals

There’s nothing wrong with being laser-focused on paying down debt as long as it doesn’t impact your ability to move the needle on your other financial goals. Whether it’s saving for retirement or building up your emergency fund, you don’t have to ignore your other goals in the name of debt repayment.

Speaking of emergency funds, Ponnapalli recommends building yours up to at least three months’ worth of expenses, but this can be a tall order for those at war with debt. An alternative strategy is to gradually fund a mini-savings account of $1,000 until you’re debt-free. This should be enough to cover most pop-up expenses. After that, you can top off your emergency fund to that three-month mark, then start saving more aggressively for other financial goals.

No matter what, kicking into a 401(k) that offers an employer match should always be a top priority, even while you’re paying off debt. (It’s free money, after all.) As for the big things, Harper suggests breaking down these goals into bite-sized pieces. If you want to save $5,000 to put a down payment on a house in three years, how much do you need to save every month to get there? Is it possible to do this while still making progress on your debt payments? It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing situation.

6. Putting all your eggs in the bankruptcy basket

It isn’t all that surprising that money is America’s leading cause of stress, according to a 2018 Northwestern Mutual study. When you’re buried under tremendous debt, bankruptcy can feel like a gift that wipes the slate clean. In the face of financial catastrophe, it might make sense, but it’s a last-resort option.

Any reputable counselor will guide you toward bankruptcy if it is your best path forward, but Harper warns that it isn’t without consequences. While many of your debts might be forgiven, you could lose other assets, such as your home or car, in the process. Your credit score will take a hit as well. Chapter 7 bankruptcy stays on your credit report for 10 years, while it’s seven years for Chapter 13. The silver lining is that, according to a study put out by LendingTree, roughly 75% of those with a bankruptcy on their record end up restoring their credit after five years.

“I’m a big believer that if it’s the right thing to do for your family in order to move forward, and it’s truly an insurmountable situation or amount of debt, then by all means grab it with both hands, do it and focus on rebuilding behaviors,” Harper said.

For folks who are overwhelmed by debt, Harper said credit counseling is often the best medicine for understanding what you’re up against and making a plan to get out of it.

The most important things to remember

The road to getting debt-free isn’t always straight and narrow — sometimes life gets in the way — but knowing the basics can make course-correcting a whole lot easier. Pushing pause on accumulating new debt is crucial. From there, put out the biggest fire first. Tapping your 401(k) to pay off debt or ignoring your other financial goals, while tempting, could also come back to bite you.

It’s about prioritizing debt repayment without putting your future self at risk.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Marianne Hayes
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Marianne Hayes is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Marianne here

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Are Balance Transfers the Best Way to Pay Off Debt?

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When you’re buried under a pile of debt, you’ll need to go beyond making the minimum payments if you hope to get debt-free as quickly as possible. And with interest rates on an upward swing, it may not be something you can afford to ignore.

This is where balance transfer credit cards come into play. Once you understand how they work, they can be a powerful tool that lets you temporarily pause your interest payments — and chip away at your principal balances faster.

MagnifyMoney tapped the experts to unpack everything you need to know about balance transfers. Here’s how to master the ins and outs of one of the most effective debt repayment options available.

What is a balance transfer?

It’s all in the name. A balance transfer involves taking one or more credit card balances and transferring them to a different card that has a lower interest rate. The ideal situation is to roll everything over to a card that has a 0% APR promotional period. This essentially eliminates the interest for a set period, giving you a chance to catch your breath and, if all goes according to plan, pay off the balance before the interest kicks in.

To pull off a balance transfer, you can either open a new low- or no-interest credit card, or look to your existing cards that you’ve already paid off to see if there are any deals to be had. According to David Metzger, a Chicago-based certified financial planner and founder of Onyx Wealth Management, it isn’t uncommon to find 0% interest rate promotions on your existing cards.

“If you’ve got multiple cards, chances are you get offers like that all the time,” he said.

If not, don’t be afraid to reach out to your credit card companies to see if they have any deals up for grabs. If they don’t, or you don’t have the credit capacity on your existing cards, you can shop online for a balance transfer card.

As for the promotional introductory period, it varies from offer to offer, with the best rates and terms generally going to those who’ve got excellent credit. Those with a minimum credit score of 680 can expect transfer periods that last anywhere from 12 to 21 months. Keep in mind that some offers tack on a balance transfer fee to the tune of 0% to 4%, so it pays to read the fine print.

How balance transfers can save you money

Temporarily eliminating your interest rate can translate to pretty significant savings. Let’s say you have the following open balances, and you pay $100 per month on each:

  • $1,000 with 18.00% APR
  • $2,000 with 16.00% APR
  • $800 with 20.00% APR

If you stay on this path, you’ll shell out $500 in interest and get out of debt in 24 months. But a balance transfer with 0% APR for 15 months will keep that $500 in your pocket. Your monthly payment won’t change, and you’ll also pay off the balance nine months faster. From a numbers-and-sense perspective, it’s a no-brainer.

“You can save a ridiculous amount in interest payments, but the name of the game is to more or less come close to paying the balance off completely before that transition over to that higher interest rate,” Lucas Casarez, a Fort Collins, Colo.-based certified financial planner and founder of Level Up Financial Planning, told MagnifyMoney.

Applying for a balance transfer credit card

As Metzger mentioned, turn first to any existing credit cards that can absorb some new debt. Are there any balance transfer offers available? If not, the best place to search and compare balance transfer offers is online. According to Casarez, the following factors play the biggest role in the kinds of deals for which you’ll be eligible:

  • A good credit score: You won’t qualify for much if your credit score is below 680. At the time of this writing, the longest promo periods with 0% interest were reserved for this bunch. Why? A lower credit score is a red flag to credit card companies that you may be a risky borrower.
  • Reliable income: Your credit score doesn’t stand alone. “You could have the best credit score in the world, but lenders still want to know that you have the ability to pay your bill,” Casarez said.

He adds that folks in retirement, for example, may have a tougher time qualifying for a worthwhile balance transfer since their money may come more from retirement accounts rather than Social Security or pensions. Casarez does clarify, however, that credit card companies typically want to approve you.

“These banks make a lot of money the longer that your current balance is at a higher interest rate,” he said.

Discover it® Balance Transfer

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5% cash back at different places each quarter like gas stations, grocery stores, restaurants, Amazon.com and more up to the quarterly maximum, each time you activate, 1% unlimited cash back on all other purchases - automatically.
Balance Transfer Fee
3%
Credit required
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Excellent/Good Credit

3 questions to ask before transferring your debt

If you’re looking to save money and get out of debt faster, balance transfers are a powerful weapon to have in your arsenal — if you know how to use them wisely. Here’s what to consider before giving it a go.

1. Do you understand why you’re in debt?

This strategy won’t work if you don’t get to the root of why you’re in debt to begin with. What kinds of purchases make up the bulk of your existing credit card statements? Whether they’re living expenses, splurges or surprise pop-up bills, it’s time to revisit your budget to prevent falling into the same patterns again. After your balance transfer is complete, seeing $0 balances on your old credit cards can create serious temptation.

“If you don’t have a plan, balance transfers may be something that allow you to spend even more money, so it could put you further into the hole,” Casarez said. “It’s like a hot potato you’re passing around, but there’s going to come a day when you have to pay up.”

Having emergency savings on hand provides an additional safety net because you won’t need a credit card to see you through your next unexpected bill. Our insiders recommend building a $1,000 mini-emergency fund while you’re paying off debt.

2. Can you pay off your debt before the introductory period ends?

Once your budget and emergency fund are in shape, it’s time to shop around online for balance transfer offers. Ones with the lowest transfer fees and longest 0% introductory periods are the best, but here’s the catch: This strategy only makes sense if you can pay off the balance before that period ends, at which point you’ll be slammed with interest charges on the remaining balance.

Standard interest rates after the introductory promo period ends are generally higher than other credit cards. And if you miss a payment, the credit card company may cancel your promo period.

3. Are you OK with taking a short-term credit hit?

Opening a new balance transfer card requires a hard credit inquiry, which will result in a short-term dip in your credit score. Your score may also take a small hit if the transfer itself uses up more than 30% of your new credit line. (How much you owe accounts for 30% of your FICO score.) But Metzger said it may be worth it if you’re ultimately eliminating high-interest debt faster.

“Your score will improve much faster than it would have had you not engaged in the strategy,” he said. “You take a small step backward for a huge step forward, if you’ve got the discipline to do it.”

Metzger does suggest using caution with balance transfers if you plan on financing a big purchase, such as a mortgage or car, within the next month or two. Depending on your financial health, slight fluctuations in your credit score could prevent you from getting the best interest rates on these purchases.

3 alternatives to a balance transfer

If a balance transfer isn’t in the cards for you right now, there are still plenty of viable ways to get out of debt as quickly as possible. Here are a few tried-and-true debt repayment methods you can put to use today.

1. Debt snowball method

The debt snowball approach prioritizes your lowest balance first, regardless of your interest rates. You make the minimum payments on all your debts while hitting the lowest balance the hardest with any extra income you can spare. Once it’s paid off, you take whatever you were spending there and roll it over to the next lowest balance. Keep on chugging along until all your balances are paid off.

“The nice thing about the debt snowball, and the reason that it tends to be the most effective way, is that you start to have those wins a lot faster when you’re focusing on those smaller balances,” Casarez said.

“You start to build up some momentum and confidence,” he added. “As you do that, you start to get a little bit more swagger and feel like you’re actually making progress and have more control over your financial situation than you thought.”

2. Debt avalanche method

This strategy puts your highest-interest balance above all others. When you compare it to the debt snowball method, it’s the fastest and cheapest way to get the job done, which is why Metzger said it makes the most sense.

“With that being said, people are quirky,” he added. “If paying down the lowest balance and snowballing it that way works for you, then by all means do it. The outcome is far more important than the path you take to get there.”

3. Debt Consolidation loan

Another way to tackle your debt is to consolidate it using a personal loan. Once you receive the loan amount, you use the funds to pay off all your debt, at which point you’ll have one new balance and monthly payment. This strategy is ideal for those who can lock down a lower interest rate. What’s more, personal loans often have fixed rates, monthly payments and repayment timelines, so it makes budgeting a whole lot easier.

And since it’s a lump-sum installment loan — not a revolving credit line in which you can charge and pay off as you go — using it to eliminate credit card debt should boost your credit score because you’re effectively using less available credit. Some personal loans do come with an origination fee, typically between 0% and 6%, so do the math to see if it’s the right debt consolidation method for you.

When shopping for a debt consolidation loan, it’s best to compare your option to make sure you get the one with the lowest interest rate. LendingTree, the parent company to MagnifyMoney, allows you to compare up to five lenders without affecting your credit score. Use our table below to get the best results!



Compare Debt Consolidation Loan Options

Which is the best way to pay off debt?

It all depends on your situation. If you’ve got a solid credit score and qualify for attractive balance transfer offers, it’s worth exploring — as long as you don’t charge new debt and you’ve got a plan in place for paying off the balance before the introductory period ends. When done right, balance transfers are great shortcuts that could save you a significant amount of time and money in the long run.

The debt snowball and avalanche methods are worthwhile alternatives for those who prefer to get out of debt the old-fashioned way. Meanwhile, a debt consolidation loan could pave the way for a locked-in lower interest rate. The main takeaway here is that you have multiple debt repayment options at your fingertips. They’re all, as the old saying goes, “Different paths up the same mountain.”

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Marianne Hayes
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Marianne Hayes is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Marianne here

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4 Tips to Help You Get Out of Debt Fast

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If you’re staring down a mountain of debt, take heart in knowing you’re far from alone. The average American’s credit card debt comes in at $6,354, according to 2017 Experian data. Furthermore, U.S. residents are shelling out more than $100 billion to cover credit card fees and interest in 2018, a 35% uptick from five years ago.

But don’t let the numbers scare you. The silver lining here is that it’s more than possible to get out from under your debt in a reasonable amount of time — and finally start moving the needle on your financial goals. All it takes is some knowledge, the right strategy and a little bit of grit and determination.

Here are four expert-backed ways to get out of debt fast.

1. Review your finances

The first order of business is getting crystal clear on your current financial situation. If you’ve had your head in the sand up to this point, now’s the time to come up for air and assess the damage. Why? You can’t make a plan of attack until you know exactly what you’re dealing with.

Thankfully, reviewing your finances is a relatively simple task.

Begin by adding up all your monthly expenses, from your rent or mortgage payment and utilities to your cellphone bill and debt payments. You’ll also want to include discretionary spending (aka fun money) along with any non-monthly expenses that are unique to you, such as quarterly insurance premiums. (The fill-in-the-blank cheat sheet in our debt-free forever guide leaves no stone unturned.)

Once you’ve tallied the total, compare that amount with your monthly take-home pay. If you’re running into a negative number, it means you’re spending more than you’re making. That may mean you’ve been relying on credit cards to cover the gap. If you are in this boat — and are serious about breaking the debt cycle — you should be prepared to make some major changes to your spending.

Bill Schretter, a Cincinnati-based CFP and CFP Board ambassador, said that auditing your budget in this way should pinpoint why you’re in debt to begin with. Is your income enough to cover your fixed living expenses? Or can the problem be traced back to good, old-fashioned overspending?

Create a personal spending plan,” Schretter said. “This is the chance to review your budget and see what expenses can be cut.”

This begs one important question: How do you define overspending? This should help put things in perspective:

Common expenseTypical monthly spend

Housing

A monthly payment that doesn't exceed 28% of your gross monthly income

Food

A moderate food budget for a single adult ranges from $256 to $301 per month

Entertainment

It varies depending on your income, but the average annual spend is $3,203

Gas

It depends on where you live, the type of car you have and how much you drive, but the national average price right now is $2.88 per gallon

Sources: Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; U.S. Department of Agriculture; Bureau of Labor Statistics; AAA Gas Prices

Your monthly expenses also include your debt payments. This is where your debt-to-income (DTI) ratio comes in. It essentially tells you how much of your income is currently servicing your debt. Those in the 40% range are on thin ice, but a DTI that’s 50% or higher is a bigger problem that deserves your immediate attention.

When half your income is being funneled toward debt, there’s little room left to cover your other bills and financial obligations. Our insiders said to shoot for a DTI that’s below 40%.

To calculate your DTI, use this formula:

100 x (total monthly debt payment / pretax monthly income) = DTI ratio

For example, if your minimum payments add up to $1,000 and you earn $4,000 a month, your DTI is 25%.

2. Prioritize repaying your debt

Now that you’ve reviewed your finances and revamped your budget, it’s time to get laser-focused on your debt. Unfortunately, not all debt is created equal. A student loan with a 4.00% interest rate is very different from a credit card that’s charging you 16.00%.

“The quickest way to get out of debt is to pay more toward the debt that’s charging you the highest interest,” said Steve Repak, a North Carolina-based CFP and CFP Board ambassador.

Repak is referring to what’s commonly called the avalanche debt repayment method. We’ll unpack a number of strategies shortly, but before you start making any moves, start by listing out all your debts to get a clear idea of what you’re up against. Schretter recommended digging up the following for each account:

  • Name of each lender
  • Current balances
  • Minimum payment for each account
  • Interest rates

You’ll likely have a mix of different types of debt. Once they’re all organized in black and white, it’s time to figure out which ones you should prioritize paying off.

Credit cards

Most experts agree that credit cards are the worst kind of debt. Having them in your wallet is a slippery slope — swiping a piece of plastic is dangerously easy if you don’t have a solid budget in place. What’s worse, credit cards have notoriously high interest rates.

We’re not saying credit cards don’t have a place in your wallet. Using credit responsibly is crucial to building a strong credit score and ultimately securing financing for cars, houses and beyond. The trick is paying off your balance in full each month, so you’re not getting charged interest.

Is it worth prioritizing first? Absolutely. Let’s say you’re paying $50 a month toward a $2,000 credit card bill with a 16.00% interest rate. If you don’t accelerate your payments, it’ll take you 58 months to pay it off, and you’ll fork over $877 in interest alone.

Student loans

Student loans fall into two main categories: Federal loans and private loans. Federal student loans generally have fixed interest rates that are lower than private loans, according to the U.S. Department of Education. And since the federal government backs them, they also offer some unique borrower protections, such as the ability to defer your loans or enroll in an income-based repayment plan if you fall on hard times.

However, you may be able to score a great rate and ultimately save money in the long run by refinancing your student debt with a private consolidation loan.

“Once a loan is consolidated, it is privatized and no longer offers the same protections as federal loans,” said Schretter, adding that it’s still a viable option if the numbers make sense.

Is it worth prioritizing first? It depends. If your student loans, public or private, have higher interest rates than your other debt, it makes sense to prioritize them. Check in with your loan servicer to make sure there are no prepayment penalties.

Personal loans

Personal loans are installment loans that come with a fixed interest rate, monthly payment and repayment timeline. The most competitive rates and terms go to borrowers with high credit scores. In other words, it’s more than possible to have a super reasonable interest rate that’s lower than your other debt obligations.

Is it worth prioritizing first? If the interest rate is on the high side, it’s worth your attention from a dollars-and-cents perspective. However, if it’s comparable to your credit card debt, it makes more sense to pay those off faster since lowering your credit card balances frees up more available credit and, in turn, improves your credit score.

Mortgage

Your mortgage is a unique type of debt. While paying it off early and being free from that monthly payment is nice, mortgages typically don’t come with high interest rates.

Is it worth prioritizing first? If you have higher-interest debt or not much in emergency savings, throwing extra income at your mortgage may not be the best move. Even if you’re debt-free, you’ll likely get a better return on your investment by directing that money toward a tax-advantaged retirement account.

3. Pick a debt payoff strategy

Snowball vs. avalanche method

There are multiple ways to tackle your debt. The idea is to continue making your minimum payments across all your open accounts, but select one to hit the hardest with larger payments. Repak mentioned above that he’s a fan of the debt avalanche method, which puts your highest-interest balance at the top of the pile.

Once you eliminate that balance, you take whatever you were applying to that bill and roll it over to the account with the next highest interest rate. On and on you go until you zero out your debt. Schretter takes another view. He said to prioritize your lowest balance first, regardless of the interest rate. This is called the snowball method.

“You need to experience the satisfaction of paying off the debts,” he said.

The avalanche method will indeed get you out of debt faster, but the quick wins you get with the snowball method may motivate you to stick with your debt repayment plan over the long haul. (Our snowball versus avalanche calculator makes it easy to run the numbers.)

Alternative methods

Those looking to get out of debt fast may consider using a personal loan to consolidate debt, especially if they can lock down an interest rate that’s lower than what they’re paying on their existing debt. Some loans tack on an origination fee, typically in the 1% to 8% range, but it may be worth it if you can drastically lower your interest rate. Compare up to five debt consolidation loan options by using our table below!

LendingTree
APR

5.99%
To
35.99%

Credit Req.

Minimum 500 FICO

Minimum Credit Score

Terms

24 to 60

months

Origination Fee

Varies

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LendingTree is our parent company. LendingTree is unique in that you may be able to compare up to five personal loan offers within minutes. Everything is done online and you may be pre-qualified by lenders without impacting your credit score. LendingTree is not a lender.

Another option is to use a balance transfer card. These cards offer 0% interest during an introductory period that generally lasts 12 to 21 months. Most charge a fee of 1% to 4% to transfer a balance, but you’ll have the luxury of paying no interest for a good stretch while you eliminate the balance. One catch is that you need to have excellent credit in order to qualify for a worthwhile balance transfer. It also only makes sense if you pay off the balance before that promotional period ends, at which point interest will kick in.

Discover it® Balance Transfer

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Read Full Review

Discover it® Balance Transfer

Regular APR
13.99% - 24.99% Variable
Intro Purchase APR
0% for 6 Months
Intro BT APR
0% for 18 Months
Annual fee
$0
Rewards Rate
5% cash back at different places each quarter like gas stations, grocery stores, restaurants, Amazon.com and more up to the quarterly maximum, each time you activate, 1% unlimited cash back on all other purchases - automatically.
Balance Transfer Fee
3%
Credit required
good-credit
Excellent/Good Credit

4. Generate extra income

As we explored above, slashing your expenses frees up additional money that you can use to chip away at your debt faster. Upping your income is the other side of the coin.

“If you want to get out of debt as quickly as possible, you’re going to have to sacrifice some of your free time for side jobs,” said Repak. “At the end of the day, the more money you earn, the more you can put these large chunks of money toward debt.”

Side hustles take many forms, from driving for Uber to mowing lawns, waiting tables or freelancing out your professional skills. Repak also recommended going through your home and gathering up any items you haven’t used, touched, played with or worn in the last year — then selling them either online or with a garage sale. Every extra penny you drum up can help whittle away your debt.

What to do after paying off your debt

Crossing the debt-free finish line is a major accomplishment! It also shifts your financial perspective.

“You go from being a debtor to being an accumulator,” said Repak. “So instead of paying interest out, you’re going to start collecting interest for yourself by building up your short-term savings so you don’t go into debt again, and then saving up for retirement.”

While on the road to becoming debt-free, he suggested maintaining a mini-emergency fund of around $1,500 so that you won’t rely on a credit card to see you through a pop-up expense. Dial that number up to the equivalent of three to six months’ worth of expenses after you’re debt-free.

Once you’re ticking off those boxes, you can also start setting money aside for other long-term money goals, like saving for a house or taking a dream vacation. Being debt-free provides the financial freedom to really focus on the goals that matter to you most.

“Change your lifestyle, change your monthly spending, get some extra income coming in and follow a strategy to pay off your debt,” said Schretter. “That’s the best way to do it.”

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The Dos and Don’ts for Handling Debt Collection Calls

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handling debt collector calls
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Having a debt in collections is a story many Americans know well. Roughly one-third of U.S. consumers were contacted by a debt collector or creditor in the 12 months leading up to January 2017, according to a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) report.

When an account is sent to collections, that means that the account has fallen behind on payments and has been turned over to a third-party debt collection company tasked with recovering the owed debt. It goes without saying that delinquent accounts can seriously drag down your credit score.

There isn’t an exact formula for how much a delinquent debt dampens your score. Martin Lynch, a certified credit counselor and director of education at Cambridge Credit Counseling, said that it’s all relative to whatever else is on your credit report. Either way, you can expect an account in collections to stay on your credit report for seven years.

But if you have an account in collections, there is light at the end of the tunnel. We tapped credit experts to shed light on the best ways to tackle your situation and get your credit back to where it should be. And it all starts with picking up the phone when debt collectors call.

What not to do when debt collectors call

Avoid communication

Your intuition may tell you to duck and cover, but avoiding a debt collector could put you in financial and legal hot water. Debt collectors are nothing if not persistent. More than likely, they’ll continue reaching out to you. And those who feel ignored may escalate their efforts and file a lawsuit against you.

“Don’t put off the discussion you need to have with your creditor,” said Bruce McClary, a spokesperson for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. “If they need to reach you about a payment you’ve missed, answer the call, open the letter, open the email, read the text — and reach back to them if you don’t connect on their first attempt.”

In other words, lead with an honest and open conversation and take it from there. The best time to set things right and preserve your credit rating, according to McClary, is during the earliest stages of debt collection, when your account may still be open.

“At that point, you want to be limiting the possibility of further damage to your credit rating by letting the account continue to slide off the cliff,” he said. “The instinct to run and hide, while it may feel natural, is absolutely against your best interests.”

Don’t blindly agree to pay the balance

“You shouldn’t agree to make any kind of payment or even acknowledge the debt until you’ve confirmed that it’s yours and you know the date in which you made the last payment if you made any,” Lynch said.

There are statutes of limitations on debt that vary based on your state and the type of debt you have. All this means is that debt collectors only have a certain amount of time to file a lawsuit to recover payment. Three to six years is the norm. The problem is that making a payment revives the statute of limitations, Lynch said.

“That’s particularly dangerous if the debt is approaching or has already passed the statute of limitation,” he added.

First things first: Confirm the debt is actually yours. The CFPB recommends finding out who the original creditor is, what the debt is for when it was incurred and how much is owed (including interest and fees). You’ll also want to confirm the debt collector’s name, address, and phone number.

To protect yourself from scam artists, request that debt collectors contact you in writing. Until then, don’t dole out any financial or personal information. It may turn out that the collector doesn’t own that debt, or they’re looking for somebody else. (If it’s the latter, and that information has found its way onto your credit report, read this guide to learn how to dispute the error.)

The takeaway here is always to request validation of the debt from the get-go. Consulting an attorney is another easy way to clarify a particular debt’s statute of limitations.

Don’t record phone calls without the debt collector’s consent

There are laws in place to protect consumers from being harassed by debt collectors (more on this in a bit), so it may be tempting to record your conversations. There’s an app for everything these days, making it pretty easy to tap a button and have immediate proof of what was said — but tread carefully.

According to Lynch, you need to prove that you had their consent to do so. If it’s a phone call, it means getting their verbal consent while the tape is rolling. Otherwise, you could inadvertently find yourself guilty of wiretapping. In general, Lynch recommends keeping a record of all interactions. If, for instance, you want to request that a debt collector stop contacting you at work, put it in writing and send them a certified letter.

Thanks to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), they’re legally obligated to back off. The gist of the law is that it keeps debt collection agencies from using “abusive, unfair or deceptive practices to collect debts from you,” according to the CFPB.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

If debt collectors are stressing you out, take heart in knowing that you don’t have to go it alone. A credit counselor can help you understand your rights and work with creditors to repay the debt as affordably as possible.

“Nonprofit credit counseling can help you create a roadmap where you can get back on track with your budget and your payments to your creditors so you can pay off the debt in a way that’s far more affordable and gets you to a point where you are debt-free much faster,” said McClary.

Check out MagnifyMoney’s guide to finding the best credit counseling options for you.

What to do when debt collectors call

Be proactive

Even better than being responsive to debt collectors is being proactive.

“Reach out and be the first one to call,” McClary said. “Don’t let it get to the point where somebody has to call you. Make the first move, tell them what’s going on with your situation and that you might be missing a payment.”

A creditor’s internal billing department will always try to collect payment from you before assigning it out to a third-party debt collection company. If you’ve stumbled on hard times and anticipate having trouble making your regular payment, give them a heads up to see if they’re willing to work with you. The more proactive you are, according to McClary, the more likely they’ll accommodate your situation. For instance, they may be able to give you the option to miss a payment or to make an interest-only payment.

The idea is to stay on good terms with them and make a good-faith effort of transparency.

“Your negotiating position is far better when you’ve been a good customer up until this point,” he said. “If you have a payment history that’s on time and historically maintained as agreed, you’re in a better position to negotiate a way to avoid any further debt collection issues and come up with an amicable solution.”

Negotiate the terms of your debt

There’s almost always room for negotiation when dealing with debt collectors. According to Lynch, some debt collectors are paid on commission, so it’s in their best interest to get you to settle the account here and now. That’s not to say that establishing a payment plan is out of the question, just that you may be able to come out paying much less than you actually owe.

It’s all relative to the amount owed, Lynch said. If you owe $3,000 and they’re willing to settle it today for $1,000 — and your budget can swing it — that’s not a bad deal. If you simply don’t have it, see if they’ll meet you in the middle with a monthly payment plan.

“Don’t be afraid to say no if you’re negotiating a payment amount,” said Lynch. “If you can really only afford $75 a month, don’t agree to anything higher than that. If they’re threatening legal action, they may be just bluffing because what they really want is to get every dollar they can as quickly as they can, so stick to your budget.”

Know your rights

Again, consumers are protected by the FDCPA, which safeguards them against shady debt collectors. These laws apply to the collection of mortgages, credit cards, and medical debts, among others.

“If you’re being contacted by debt collectors, know what your rights are and what debt collectors are required to do by law,” said McClary.

For starters, they’re restricted in how they’re allowed to make contact. They cannot reach out to you prior to 8:00 a.m. or after 9:00 p.m., and they have to stop contacting you at work if you request it. The laws are designed in a way that prevents harassment.

Be that as it may, one CFPB study found that 27% of consumers who were approached about debt felt threatened. What’s more, almost 40% said that debt collectors were attempting contact at least four times per week.

“They also are required to honor any request to be contacted at all, but I’d caution people because for your own benefit, you don’t want to cut off all communication with the creditor if it’s truly a debt that you owe,” added McClary.

Take control of your debt

It’s never too late to get your finances back on the right track, even if you’re at a point where you’re getting calls from debt collectors. The good news is that once you face the music and begin making good on your old debts, your credit could improve. When you strike a deal to pay off a collection account in full, Lynch said it has a positive effect on your FICO 9 credit score since it will no longer factor that account into your rating.

“There’s no set amount of points gained or lost for any of this,” he added. “It’s all relative to whatever else is in your report that month How much good information do you also have in that report?”

Far and away, the most important thing you can do for your credit health is to make on-time payments from here on out. Your payment history makes up a whopping 35% of your FICO score.

“The main thing to do is focus on keeping all your other financial obligations paid as agreed,” said McClary. “In order to rebuild your credit rating, it’s important to focus on the things that are going to get you the most traction. Making your payments on time is absolutely priority No. 1.”

In extreme situations where your credit score has been severely damaged by collection accounts, you might have to open new accounts to establish a healthy credit history. Your options may be limited as a lower credit score generally translates to higher interest rates and fees, but paying off your balances in full each month reduces the likelihood of getting in over your head. If you want to begin rebuilding your credit, a secured card may help, assuming you can handle it responsibly.

Having debts in collections isn’t the end of the road, so long as you know your rights and establish a financial plan for getting back on the right path. Put it another way: Rehabbing your finances (and credit score) is more than possible.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

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Strategies to Save

How Retirement Planning Can Help You Save for the Future

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Retirement planning
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Retirement planning, like any other long-term goal, requires some forethought and intention. Slow and steady wins the race when it comes to padding your nest egg, but many Americans are struggling to adequately prepare for their golden years.

Almost 50% of families in the U.S. have nothing at all set aside for retirement, according to research from the Economic Policy Institute. It’s little wonder that three in 10 workers say the topic stresses them out.

The truth is that it’s never too late to up your savings game. Whether you’re right on track or way behind schedule, retirement planning can make saving for the future a little easier. Here’s what you need to know.

What is a retirement plan?

A retirement plan is exactly what it sounds like — a strategy for shoring up your financial security when you’re no longer in the workforce. This begins with figuring out how much money you’ll actually need in retirement. (We’ll dive into this shortly.) From there, it’s about earmarking a reasonable amount of monthly income for your future self.

It would be wonderful if our income divided itself evenly between all our financial goals, but that’s rarely the case. Throughout your life, it’s normal to alternate between hitting your retirement savings goals and pulling back in order to fund other financial priorities, like paying down debt or building your emergency fund. Effective retirement planning usually requires some trade-offs, a little bit of effort and the ability to tweak and course-correct along the way as life happens. In other words, retirement planning is dynamic.

“The plan that gets you to retirement is more than likely not going to be the plan that gets you through retirement,” Jim Brogan, a Knoxville-based certified retirement financial adviser, told MagnifyMoney. “Until you retire, you’re in a saving phase of life; after you retire, you’re in a spending phase.”

Retirement plans take many forms. If you don’t know your 401(k)s from your IRAs, rest easy. Let’s unpack the details.

Types of retirement plans

401(k)s

This employer-sponsored retirement account automatically takes a percentage of each paycheck and earmarks it for retirement. The beauty of a traditional 401(k) is that your contributions are tax-deductible, which is a nice perk come tax time. The lower your taxable income is, the lower your tax liability will be. On top of that, because your retirement savings aren’t taxed when you contribute them, that means your money can grow tax-free. When it comes time to pull that money out for retirement, it’ll then be taxed as ordinary income.

401(k)s come with a number of perks, the biggest being if your employer offers any sort of match — that’s free money. Every company is different, so you’ll want to contact your HR rep to clarify the details. Some employers, for example, will match 100% of your contributions up to 3% of your salary. Others might match half of your contributions up to 3% to 5% of your earnings. That means you’ll cash in on your employer making regular deposits into your account, which is the most effective way to leverage all that 401(k)s have to offer.

Just keep in mind that the IRS does put a cap on how much you, as an individual, can kick into your 401(k). For 2018, you can contribute up to $18,500, unless you’re 50 or over, in which case you can contribute up to $24,500.

Side note: 403(b)s are similar to a 401(k). They’re essentially the same, except that instead of being sponsored by private companies, they’re available to certain employees at public schools, nonprofits and churches.

Individual Retirement Account (IRA)

This kind of retirement account has nothing to do with your employer. You open it independently and can load it up with a maximum of $5,500 every year. (If you’re 50 or over, that number jumps to $6,500.) There are two main types of IRAs: traditional and Roth.

You can open an IRA at many major banks, investment firms or any of the new robo-advisory services that have cropped up over the years.

Traditional IRA

Roth IRA

Like 401(k) contributions, what you put in counts as a tax deduction. Your money also grows tax-free, but it is taxed as ordinary income when you make withdrawals during retirement.

Just keep in mind that if you tap into it prior to age 59½, you'll typically have to pay taxes on it, plus a 10% penalty.

The Roth IRA works a little differently. You won't enjoy that tax break when putting money in, but your cash does grow tax-free and you won't get hit with taxes when you withdraw during retirement.

In fact, you can pull from it whenever you want, even prior to retirement, without any penalties. The only time you'll be penalized is if you tap into the appreciation (i.e. your investment returns) before age 59½.

One other thing worth mentioning is that Roth IRAs also come with income limits. If you’re single, your annual earnings have to be under $135,000; it’s under $199,000 for married folks filing their taxes jointly.

Pensions

If your employer offers a pension, they’ll kick money into your plan during the years you’re still working. Then when you retire, that money comes your way either in a lump sum or as a monthly payment — think of it as a retirement paycheck of sorts that’ll likely be considered regular taxable income.

How much you’ll get depends on a number of factors, like your salary and how long you worked for the company. A pension provides peace of mind because the money is guaranteed to be waiting for you in retirement, which makes retirement planning a little easier.

Health Savings Accounts (HSAs)

Don’t let the name fool you. Health savings accounts (HSAs) can double as retirement-saving vehicles that go beyond medical expenses and are offered by certain employers.

If offered by your employer, you can make contributions before taxes are taken out, typically via automatic withdrawals from your paychecks. (If you open an HSA yourself, any contributions you make can be claimed as a tax deduction, which lowers your taxable income.)

You can tap into this fund tax-free to cover qualified medical costs at any time, but the reason it’s great for retirement is that once you hit 65, that money is yours for whatever you like — free and clear, tax-free, whether it’s for medical expenses or not.

HSA rules: The main catch is that you have to be enrolled in a high-deductible health plan to qualify. This translates to a deductible that’s at least $1,350 for individuals; $2,700 for families. Contribution limits apply. For 2018, they cap out at $3,450 for single individuals; $6,850 for families. There’s also a catch-up contribution for 55+ folks, which allows you to kick in an extra $1,000. Check to see if your employer offers an HSA; if they don’t, anyone can open one if they meet the eligibility requirements.

Taxable investment accounts

Tax-advantaged accounts, like 401(k)s and Roth IRAs, are by far the best way to maximize your retirement planning efforts over the long haul. If you have some extra income leftover, directing it toward a taxable investment account is another way to build up your nest egg.

Brokerage firms offer these accounts as an additional way to save for retirement. Sure, they don’t come with tax benefits, but they also offer more freedom since you aren’t handcuffed to contribution limits, salary restrictions or early withdrawal penalties.

That said, you’ll have to ask yourself if it makes better financial sense to max out your 401(k) and/or IRA before looking to an investment account. Either way, you’ll definitely want to at least contribute enough to recoup any 401(k) employer match. Every case is different, but don’t be so quick to dismiss investment accounts because of the tax factor.

How to plan for retirement at every age

No matter what stage of life you’re in, you can always be working toward your retirement goals. Here’s what our experts have to say.

Retirement planning in your 20s:

“Your 20s is the best time to get into the habit of paying yourself first by automatically saving a portion of every paycheck,” Mark Wilson, an Irvine, Calif.-based certified financial planner, tells MagnifyMoney.

Time is on your side. Thanks to the magic of compounding interest, your early saving years are most powerful. Because you have more time to recover from any market setbacks, most experts recommend investing aggressively in stocks vs. safer, low-yield investments like bonds. A simple way to do that without getting too in the weeds is to sign up for a target-date fund.

Let’s say you open a Roth IRA and add just $50 a month starting at age 25. Assuming an average of 7% annual returns, you’ll have accumulated over $128,000 by the time you turn 65.

But how do you manage retirement savings if you have debt or can barely cobble together an emergency fund?

“For most 20-somethings, the number one goal isn’t saving for retirement,” Douglas Boneparth, a New York City-based certified financial planner, told MagnifyMoney. “Your 20s is really the time where you need to focus on equipping yourself with a strong foundation in personal finance.”

You may need excess income to help fund your financial goals, whether that be building a three- to six-month emergency fund, paying down high-interest debt or whatever matters most to you. That said, if your employer will match your 401(k) contributions in some way, passing on it means leaving free money on the table.

“Taking that match is a no-brainer; you could immediately get maybe a 25% or even 100% return on those first dollars,” said Wilson.

This certainly isn’t to say you shouldn’t get a jump on retirement planning — it just means that getting yourself on solid financial ground should be top of mind. Begin by getting a firm grasp on your income and expenses, then creating a realistic budget that feels doable for your lifestyle. After all your monthly bills are paid, how much is left over? This is what Boneparth refers to as “mastering your cash flow.”

How much should you save? He says earmarking 10% to 15% of your income for retirement is the ideal scenario, but if this isn’t feasible, the idea is to squirrel away at least enough to get an employer match. The most important thing is getting into the routine of saving. You can always dial up your efforts as you start earning more.

The main takeaways for your 20s:

  • Establish a strong financial foundation — track your income and expenses, and create a realistic budget.
  • Identify your financial goals, then use excess monthly income to fund them little by little.
  • If your employer offers a 401(k) match, try to contribute enough to lock down this free money.
  • Get into the habit of setting aside some portion of every paycheck for retirement. A little can go a long way when it comes to compounding interest.

Retirement planning in your 30s:

By this point, most people are earning more than they did the decade before, of course many also have new expenses — a mortgage, kids, child care bills etc.

Having competing money goals never really goes away, but padding your retirement fund should be a priority at this point. Brogan says that if you’re just starting to save for retirement now, you should aim to sock away 10% to 15% of each paycheck.

“This can feel overwhelming for someone who’s already established in their work life and used to spending that money, so I suggest starting small,” he said.

For example, begin by saving just 2% of your income, then increase it gradually every year. You can also direct, say, 50% of every work bonus or a percentage of every tax refund or raise to your retirement accounts. Using cash windfalls feels less painful since they’re separate from your monthly budget.

Also, if you don’t have life insurance, it’s time to seriously consider it. This is doubly important if you are a primary breadwinner or you have children who depend on you. Check out our guide to life insurance here.

The main takeaways for your 30s:

  • Shoot to set aside 10% of your income for retirement. If this feels overwhelming, start small and gradually work your way up.
  • If you’re short of your goal, boost your efforts by leveraging cash windfalls like work bonuses, raises and tax refunds.

Retirement planning in your 40s:

Our financial priorities are always evolving, but many people in this phase of life feel particularly torn between two biggies: college savings versus retirement. Parental instincts often nudge us to take care of our children before ourselves, but our experts actually say that your retirement should come before financing your kids’ education.

“Unlike college, there are no scholarships or loans you can get for retirement,” warned Wilson. “If you’re behind on retirement savings, this is the time to kick it up because by the time you get into your 50s, it’s only going to get harder.”

On that note, Wilson says those just getting started should strive to save no less than 15% of their income for retirement at this point. This obviously may require some budgeting overhauls. Tracking your expenses may help you reveal areas of wasteful spending. Can you negotiate down any bills or go without cable, for example? Can you pick up a side gig or consolidate high-interest debt to free up more money for retirement? Every little bit helps.

The main takeaways for your 40s:

  • If you haven’t started saving at this point, strive to earmark 15% of your income for retirement. This may require reworking your budget. Remember: Something’s always better than nothing, even if it’s short of that 15% mark.
  • Retirement savings on track? If possible, up your account contributions.

Retirement planning in your 50s

Now you’re really on the home stretch. Once you get five to 12 years out from retirement, Brogan suggests really sitting down and asking yourself what your income needs will be like once the time comes. This is important as fewer than 50% of Americans have actually calculated their retirement number, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Begin by clarifying how much guaranteed income will be provided. Social Security benefits and pensions, for example, fall into this category. To ballpark your Social Security benefits, check out this handy guide. According to the Department of Labor, these benefits, on average, are equal to roughly 40% of your pre-retirement earnings.

If, for instance, you’ll be getting $40,000 in Social Security between you and your spouse, and you’ve decided you need about $65,000 a year to live comfortably, that means you’re going to have to draw $25,000 from savings each year to maintain that lifestyle. (Just be sure to adjust for inflation.)

Those who aren’t quite hitting their savings goals can contribute more to 401(k)s and IRAs once they turn 50, at which point the IRS allows for higher contribution limits. The same goes for Health Savings Accounts once you turn 55.

The main takeaways for your 50s:

  • Think about what your income needs will actually be like in retirement. Then pinpoint any guaranteed income like Social Security benefits, pensions and so on. How much will you actually need to draw from your retirement accounts each year?
  • Continue kicking into your retirement accounts.
  • If you’re behind, consider leveraging catch-up contributions.

Retirement planning in your 60s

The average retirement age in the U.S. is 63, according to the Statistic Brain Research Institute. The good news is that those who are behind still have some time to shore up their finances before leaving the workforce. One of the best strategies is having a practical retirement date.

“Working an extra two years is the easiest way to make a big impact on your nest egg,” said Wilson.

Another workaround is to delay when you start taking your Social Security benefits. According to the Social Security Administration, you can begin cashing in on them at age 62, but how much you get increases every year that you get closer to what’s considered full retirement age (67). Here’s how the SSA breaks it down:

Age you start collecting Social Security

How much of your monthly benefit you'll get

62

70%

63

75%

64

80%

65

86.7%

66

93.3%

67

100%

One other tidbit: About five years before you retire, Brogan recommends beginning to set aside whatever money you’ll need during your early years of retirement — say, the first five years or so — into stable investments. If you find yourself in the middle of a market downturn right after you step away from your job, having some money in a traditional savings account, for instance, means you won’t have to liquidate money in the market while it’s down.

The main takeaways for your 60s:

  • Be reasonable about your retirement date. Staying in the workforce could majorly boost your nest egg.
  • Consider delaying your Social Security benefits, if necessary.
  • About five years before you retire, start setting a few years’ of retirement income into an account that’s separate from the stock market.

Final thoughts on retirement planning

Retirement planning is far from a one-size-fits-all approach, but some general rules of thumb do apply. Read up on which type of retirement account feel right to you. Then set yourself up for long-term success (and reap the benefits of compound interest), by beginning to save as early as possible. If your employer offers free money by way of a 401(k) match, all the better.

Once you get into your 60s, you can ratchet up your savings even more by settling on a reasonable retirement date and delaying your Social Security benefits, if possible. Of course, you’ll have to tweak and adjust along the way as life happens, but accommodating other financial goals doesn’t have to be an either/or situation.

The most important thing is to nurture the habit of routinely earmarking some portion of your earnings for your nest egg — in good times and bad.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

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Marianne Hayes is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Marianne here

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How I Paid Off $80,000 Worth of Debt by My 30th Birthday

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After wrapping up college in 2008, Tasha Danielle was like most new grads — feeling overwhelmed by debt. With more than $50,000 in student loans and several thousands of dollars more in credit card bills and auto debt, her entry-level salary at an accounting firm didn’t get her very far. Before long, she found herself on the hook for nearly $80,000.

It wasn’t easy, but Tasha managed to get all her balances down to zero by the time she turned 30. Here’s how she did it.

Digging a $80,000 hole didn’t happen overnight

“I knew going into college that I’d have to take out loans, but the plan was always to pay it all off as soon as possible,” Tasha tells MagnifyMoney.

Her initial student loan balance wasn’t a shock (education doesn’t come cheap), but her original plan of attack was to move back home after graduation to wipe it out as fast as she could — especially since she also had to take out a private loan to pay for the additional classes she needed for her CPA exam.

Tasha landed a job as an auditor at a Detroit accounting firm earning a $50,000 salary, but her debt repayment plan changed when she got engaged in 2009 and moved in with her fiancé. Between paying new bills and planning a wedding, sticking to her original debt-free timeline began feeling tough.

She spent the next few years covering all her minimum payments, but ended up taking on another loan when she financed a used car. By the time Tasha turned 25, her debt balances had ballooned beyond belief.

“The worst part [of being in so much debt] was that it wasn’t like I was living lavishly or going on shopping sprees and vacations,” she says.

At the time, she was shelling out $629 every month in minimum debt payments. It was her decision to end her engagement in 2011 that lit a fire under her to make a change. The situation created a financial emergency; she had to come up with $2,000 on a moment’s notice to cover their rent payments on her own. Tasha took out a cash advance on a credit card to get over the hump, which fixed her immediate problem but created a new one: she had effectively cancelled out any progress she’d made on her debt.

Tasha’s “aha!” moment came soon after, when she heard personal finance expert Michelle Singletary give a talk at her church.

“She posed a single question that changed my life: What if you were able to actually own your paycheck?”

That was the game changer.

Tasha dove head first into financial freedom blogs and podcasts, arming herself with as much knowledge as she could find. Prior to all this, she’d been throwing any additional monthly income she had toward her debts with the highest interest rates. But this approach hadn’t gotten her very far, and she was feeling less than inspired.

‘Not all my friends were supportive of what I was doing’

Photo courtesy of Tasha Danielle.

Tasha switched it up in 2012, opting for what’s known as the debt snowball method. In this system, you prioritize your smallest balance first; once you eliminate it, you take whatever money you were spending there and redirect it toward your next smallest balance until they’re all paid off.

Knocking out her balances so quickly gave Tasha the boost of momentum she needed to soldier on, especially when she saw her already-good credit score going higher and higher. (Keeping her payment history solid throughout her journey helped keep her score intact.)

Tasha also upped her income by working overtime whenever her company offered it — weekends, holidays, you name it. To accelerate her efforts even more, she curbed her overspending by adopting a cash system for discretionary spending.

“I used my checking account to cover fixed bills like my cell phone and internet, but went with an old-fashioned, cash-in-an-envelope system for groceries, gas and weekend money,” she says. For the latter, Tasha allotted herself just $25 per paycheck for going out with friends.

Staying on budget was a challenge, but she made it work with the help of some clever hacks. For instance, she’d bring extra food to work with her on days she knew she was going out afterward; this way, she wouldn’t be tempted to order bar fare. Similarly, she’d order budget-friendly drinks or simply find free things to do around town instead.

“My circle of friends changed a little; not all my friends were supportive of what I was doing,” she recalls. “But my real friends understood, and we just got creative about how we spent time together. Cooking dinner at home with friends is just as fun as going out to an expensive restaurant.”

Tasha began making serious headway, knocking out her balances faster than ever before. And to really supercharge her motivation, she rewarded herself every time she eliminated one. After knocking out one balance, she celebrated with a budget-friendly trip to Florida that she funded without credit cards. For Tasha, “all work and no play” is no way to live.

“You have to allow yourself to indulge in reasonable treats that don’t break the bank — otherwise, you’ll go crazy!”

Crossing the debt-free finish line

In 2014, Tasha’s journey inspired her to launch Financial Garden, a program that brings financial literacy to public schools. This passion project has since become her life’s work. Two years later, she paid off her final balance. It was surreal, she recalls, but well worth it.

The first thing she did was take her mom to Mexico before jetting off for a solo trip to South Africa — all of which she paid for without the help of a credit card.

“I actually get to keep my paycheck now, instead of handing it over to creditors every month,” she says.

She has also dipped her toes into real estate investing, recently buying her first rental property as a source of passive income. For Tasha, breaking free from debt is what jump-started her financial freedom.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Marianne Hayes
Marianne Hayes |

Marianne Hayes is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Marianne here

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Personal Loans

Are Long-Term Personal Loans Ever a Good Idea?

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

Disclosure : By clicking “See Offers” you’ll be directed to our parent company, LendingTree. You may or may not be matched with the specific lender you clicked on, but up to five different lenders based on your creditworthiness.

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The importance of having a rainy day fund can’t be overstated — you’re sure to encounter a storm at some point. While our insiders suggest setting your target at a minimum of three to six months’ worth of expenses, actually doing so can be a slow climb. This is especially true if you’re splitting your efforts between paying off debt. For many, a trip to the emergency room or a stint of unemployment is enough to seriously rock the financial boat.

That’s where long-term personal loans come in. Like any type of financing, they come with both benefits and risks. But if used wisely, they could potentially rescue you from a financial nightmare.

What is a long-term loan?

Personal loans are doled out by lenders and, unlike credit cards, are not revolving lines of credit. When we say “long-term” personal loans, we’re referring to loans that stretch beyond the one-year mark. Some may last only 12 months, while others can take a decade or more to pay off.

The most important thing to remember about personal loans is that the interest rate, monthly payment and payoff timeline are all fixed, meaning there’s virtually no wiggle room when it comes to how much you have to pay every month. In other words, when you sign on, you’re committing to this bill for the long haul. This could be taken as either a pro or a con, depending on how you look at it.

On the one hand, the fixed payment keeps the finish line in sight. Credit cards, on the other hand, give you the oh-so-tempting option of just paying the minimum, which stretches out the life of the loan, resulting in you paying more in interest over the long term. On the flip side, if you stumble upon financial hard times, having the ability to make lower monthly payments can be a godsend.

That said, long-term personal loans can be used for just about anything — from consolidating debt to seeing you through a financial emergency. Since the money is typically deposited straight into your bank account, you can use it however you wish. Of course, they don’t come without some strings attached.

Let’s break down the fees and rates for personal loans

For starters, personal loans are considered unsecured debt.

“Unlike your mortgage or an auto loan where you’re leveraging an asset (your home or your car) as collateral, personal loans are attached to no such security,” Pamela Capalad, certified financial planner and founder of Brunch & Budget, tells MagnifyMoney.

“As such, lenders understandably see them as being inherently riskier,” she added.
“This is precisely why you can expect strict repayment terms and potentially higher interest rates.”

The APR may not stand alone. In some cases, you could be hit with an origination fee to the tune of 1% to 6%. Some companies will also try and sell you insurance or other expensive, unnecessary products with these loans, says Lynn Ballou, certified financial planner and CFP Board ambassador.

“And if they’ve front-loaded that loan with extra interest or charged you an origination fee, that’s actually costing you quite a bit more than if you’d just looked for a less expensive option,” she added.

In other words, borrowers beware. Before signing on the dotted line, be sure to read carefully through the terms and fees. Ballou then suggests running the numbers through an independent loan calculator to make sure it’s actually a good deal for you. After factoring in the interest rate and potentially an origination fee, would it be less expensive to go with a different financing option? (We’ll explore this shortly.) Also, is the monthly payment within your budget? These are make-or-break questions to ask yourself before pulling the trigger.

When a long-term personal loan makes sense

Now that we’ve picked apart the nitty-gritty details, let’s explore when a long-term personal loan might be a good idea. A personal loan can be a powerful consolidation tool for those struggling to eliminate high-interest debts — assuming you snag a better APR. In addition to saving money, you’ll have a clear timeline in place and the convenience having just one monthly payment.

When it’s the cheapest borrowing option

“Personal loans actually have some great interest rates, especially now since the market has gotten really competitive over the last few years,” said Capalad. “With a long-term loan, you’ll probably end up paying off your debt faster, or at least about the same time as doing some sort of debt snowball method.” The debt snowball method involves ordering debts from smallest to largest balances and tackling the smallest debts first.

As far as rates go, the better your credit score and higher your income is, the better chances you’ll secure a good rate. If you have poor credit, however, you should expect to see a higher rate. Personal loan rates can eclipse credit card rates, getting as high as 35.99%.

Capalad does offer another word of warning. If you’re using a personal loan to consolidate debt, you have to be really disciplined to put those credit cards away. When people use the loan to get their cards down to what Capalad calls “that nice $0 balance,” it can be extremely tempting to run up the balances again. That said, if you’re disciplined and committed to using a long-term personal loan to get on stronger financial footing, it can represent a great solution.

Debt consolidation aside, sometimes it simply works out better from a dollar-and-cents perspective. If you find a personal loan with no origination fee and a reasonable APR, it may very well be less expensive than getting a cash advance via a credit card, especially since many financial institutions charge a 1% to 5% cash advance fee.

“Sometimes a personal loan is actually the least expensive option available, but sometimes it’s also the only option available,” added Ballou. “Not everyone has something to collateralize, like equity in their home to unlock a home equity loan.”

When a long-term personal loan doesn’t make sense

If you’re stuck between a financial rock and a hard place, being hit with costly fees or high interest rates is certainly better than filing for bankruptcy or defaulting on your bills. The good news is that doing some light research might reveal a different option that’s a better fit than a personal loan.

Begin by asking yourself what you need this loan for. Is it to see you through a financial emergency that’s unlikely to happen again? Or is it to take a last-minute vacation? That may sound obvious, but it’s a legit question to ask because it’s all about trade-offs here.

Let’s say you take out a five-year $5,000 personal loan at 19.5% APR. If you crunch the numbers using our personal loan calculator, it translates to a $131 monthly payment — you’ll also spend an additional $2,865 on interest. Is that really worth it for a family vacation? Perhaps not.

You might, on the other hand, feel like it’s your best option if you’re swimming in credit debt with higher interest rates and need a debt consolidation loan.

The scenario plays out better if you have a fully-funded emergency savings.

“If you have a steady job and you’re at that three- to six-month level, and the trip is extremely important to you because it’s for, let’s say, your best friend’s wedding, you’re better off dipping into your emergency fund and then paying yourself back — but you have to be extremely committed to topping it back off as soon as possible,” said Capalad.

When your cash reserves are running low and a long-term personal loan isn’t your best option, it’s time to explore the financial alternatives. (We’ll dive deeper into your options below.)

Getting a long-term personal loan

Ready to move forward with a long-term personal loan? Here’s what should be on your radar:

Checking your credit score

Whenever you’re seeking new financing, your credit score is perhaps the most important factor. This number basically sums up how creditworthy you are, which is what lenders care about. The higher your score, the better interest rates and financing options you’ll get. Here’s how FICO, America’s leading credit reporting agency, breaks down this all-important three-digit number. (There are a number of ways to access your credit score for free.)

This number is actually a reflection of what’s on your credit report, which sums up your credit history. Experian, TransUnion and Equifax (the three major credit bureaus) each generate their own report, which you can pull for free once a year at AnnualCreditReport.com. Doing so is vital to maintain a healthy credit score. What’s more, finding and disputing an error on your report may give your score a significant boost.

Where to get a long-term personal loan

Applying for a long-term personal loan isn’t all that different from locking down one with a shorter term. The internet has certainly streamlined the process. LendingTree, which is MagnifyMoney’s parent company, offers a way to compare loans from top lenders like BestEgg, Avant, LendingClub and more. Here, you can plug in a few pieces of information and possibly get quotes in a matter of seconds based on your credit score. It’s a soft credit pull, which won’t hurt your credit, but just know that when you officially apply with a lender, it will count as a hard inquiry.

Just be sure to compare rates as no two lenders are the same. Let’s say, for instance, your credit score sits at 660 and you’re looking to remodel your kitchen for $20,000. Short of a hard credit pull, here are some instant quotes:

APR

6.99%
To
24.99%

Credit Req.

660

Minimum Credit Score

Terms

36 to 84

months

Origination Fee

No origination fee

SEE OFFERS Secured

on LendingTree’s secure website

Discover is a financial services firm that offers credit cards, deposit accounts and personal loans. ... Read More

APR

5.99%
To
24.99%

Credit Req.

640

Minimum Credit Score

Terms

24 to 60

months

Origination Fee

0.00% - 5.00%

SEE OFFERS Secured

on LendingTree’s secure website

Payoff is a financial services firm that offers personal loans mainly to help consolidate credit card debt.... Read More

APR

Up to 5.99%
To
29.99%

Credit Req.

660

Minimum Credit Score

Terms

36 or 60

months

Origination Fee

0.99% - 5.99%

SEE OFFERS Secured

on LendingTree’s secure website

Advertiser Disclosure

People looking for a process that is fast and straightforward can’t go wrong when applying through Best Egg for a personal loan. ... Read More


*The Annual Percentage Rate (APR) is the cost of credit as a yearly rate and ranges from 5.99%-29.99%, which may include an origination fee from 0.99% - 5.99%. Any origination fee on a 5-year loan will be at least 4.99% and is deducted from loan proceeds. The APR offered will depend on your credit score, income, debt payment obligations, loan amount, loan term, credit usage history and other factors, and therefore may be higher than our lowest advertised rate. Requests for the highest loan amount may resulting an APR higher than our lowest advertised rate. You need a minimum 700 FICO® score and a minimum individual annual income of $100,000 to qualify for our lowest rate.

Best Egg loans are unsecured personal loans made by Cross River Bank, a New Jersey State Chartered Commercial Bank, Member FDIC. Equal Housing Lender. "Best Egg" is a trademark of Marlette Funding LLC. All uses of "Best Egg" on this site mean and shall refer to "the Best Egg personal loan" and/or "Best Egg on behalf of Cross River Bank, as originator of the Best Egg personal loan," as applicable. Loan amounts generally range from $2,000-$35,000. Offers up to $50,000 may be available for qualified customers who receive offer codes in the mail. The minimum individual annual income needed to qualify for a loan of $50,000 is $130,000. Borrowers may hold no more than two open Best Egg loans at any given time. In order to be eligible for a second Best Egg loan, your existing Best Egg loan must have been open for at least six months. Total existing Best Egg loan balances must not exceed $50,000. All loans in MA must exceed $6,000; in NM, OH must exceed $5,000; in GA must exceed $3,000.

Borrowers should refer to their loan agreement for specific terms and conditions. A loan example: a 5–year $10,000 loan with 9.99% APR has 60 scheduled monthly payments of $201.81, and a 3–year $5,000 loan with 5.99% APR has 36 scheduled monthly payments of $150.57. Your verifiable income must support your ability to repay your loan. Upon loan funding, the timing of available funds may vary depending upon your bank's policies.

To help the government fight the funding of terrorism and money laundering activities, federal law requires all financial institutions to obtain, verify, and record information that identifies each person who opens an account. When you open an account, we will ask for your name, address, date of birth, and other information that will allow us to identify you.

As you can see, there’s a pretty wide gap when it comes to interest rates. The good news is that the longer the term, the shorter the monthly payment — but you’ll ultimately pay more in interest over the long haul. For example, let’s pretend you lock down that $20,000 loan with no origination fee and an APR of 16%. Now let’s compare what happens when we tweak the repayment timeline:

Payoff Timeline

Monthly Payment

Total Interest Paid

60 months

$486

$9,182

40 months

$648

$5,935

24 months

$979

$3,502

There are a lot of moving parts here, which is why reading the fine print is vital. Before we jump into that, let’s talk about getting pre-qualified.

Getting pre-qualified for a personal loan

It’s probably a term you’ve heard before, but let’s unpack what it actually means. Pre-qualification utilizes what’s known as soft credit pulls as opposed to hard inquiries. Doing this does not impact your credit, making it much easier to shop around for the best deals. Soft inquiries essentially give lenders a little sneak peek of your credit. Once you pull the trigger on a loan, the bank will then do a deep dive by pulling your full credit report. (FYI, hard credit inquiries typically only shave a few points off your score, depending on your overall credit health, and you’ll bounce back relatively quickly if you keep up with on-time payments.)

Applying for a personal loan

Once you’re ready to formally apply for a long-term personal loan, you’ll need to gather up some documents. According to Ballou, this typically includes:

  • Photo ID
  • Proof of income and employment
  • Bank statements
  • Possibly a copy of a W-2 or tax return as proof of past income

Once the application process is in motion, the next step is approval, but Ballou says you could be denied if the lender sees you as a credit risk. Having bad credit, a short credit history, unreliable income or unsteady employment could all work against you.

Read the fine print

Before making the commitment, thoroughly read through all the terms and fine print. Here are some helpful questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you really need this loan? If it’s a true financial emergency, the answer might be yes. Otherwise, think long and hard before going all in.
  • Can your budget comfortably absorb the monthly payment? Remember, personal loans are locked in; you’re on the hook for that payment every month.
  • Is there an origination fee? Run the numbers and also factor in the APR. How much will your loan actually cost you when all is said and done? Is there a cheaper alternative? (We’ll jump into this in the next section.)
  • Are you okay with the repayment timeline? Think about your long-term financial goals. If, say, you’d love to save for a down payment on a house within the next five years, will this loan impede your ability to do so?
  • Is a prepayment penalty hiding in the contract? This could make it costly to pay off your loan ahead of schedule.

Alternatives to a long-term personal loan

Depending on your situation, a personal loan may very well be your cheapest option. If not, you’re not out of luck. Here are some alternatives worth exploring:

Home equity loans & lines of credit

Home equity loans (HELs) and home equity lines of credit (HELOCs) both use your home as collateral. You’re basically borrowing against the equity you have in your home by way of a secured loan or credit line. To get the best rates, you’ll need a decent credit score (ideally 660 and up) and at least 15% equity in your home. You also don’t want your debt-to-income ratio to exceed the 43% mark. One other crucial point: if you default on your payments, the bank could seize your home, so make sure you’re really comfortable moving forward.

Cash-out mortgage refinancing

A cash-out refinance lets you borrow additional cash to use as you wish. You could also tweak the terms, like extending to a longer-term loan, to lower your monthly payment and give your budget some breathing room. This, of course, will keep your mortgage debt alive and well for a longer period of time, and there may be fees, but in the short term, it may be your least expensive option.

Balance transfer credit cards

Seeking a personal loan to consolidate debt? Utilizing balance transfer offers may be a more strategic way to go. This is when you jump on low- or no-interest promotional APR offers to pay off your existing balances. Then you knock out the new balance before that teaser introductory period ends.

“If you can aggressively pay down the debt, then you can save a lot of money, especially if you have a lot of debt,” said Capalad.

Just be sure to read the fine print. There’s usually an initial fee that could be as high as 4%. And once the promotional period ends, your APR may skyrocket. This option really only makes sense if you can eliminate the balance within that time. Also, most banks won’t let you transfer debt from one card to another within the same bank.

Traditional credit cards

Your financial emergency may cost you less if you finance it with a traditional credit card, especially if the interest rate is reasonable and you’re able to accelerate your payments. While some personal loans will hit you with a prepayment penalty, you’re more than welcome to pay more than the minimum balance on a credit card. Here’s a simple credit card debt calculator to help bring the numbers into focus.

Borrowing from family or friends

It may bruise your pride, but borrowing cash from loved ones just might save you from financial ruin. (According to LendingTree research, 94.5% of people surveyed said they wouldn’t charge interest on a loan to a family member.) If you’re face-to-face with a true emergency, tap into your personal network to see what options may be available. You can work together to determine the terms and even draw up a contract if it gives your benefactor some peace of mind.

The Pros and Cons of Long-Term Personal Loans

Let’s recap, shall we?

Pros:

  • Long-term personal loans translate to on-the-spot cash that’s typically deposited right into your bank account, which you can then use for whatever you want.
  • If you routinely make on-time payments, you’ll end up boosting your credit score in the long term.
  • Using personal loans to consolidate debt could save you big time in interest.
  • They’re good for folks who don’t have something to collateralize, like home equity or a car.

Cons:

  • The monthly payment and payoff timeline are fixed, and there’s no wiggle room. If you miss it, you’re in default, which could do a number on your credit score.
  • Depending on your credit score, you may not be eligible for a reasonable APR. This could cost you.
  • Your loan may come with a prepayment penalty.
  • Making this monthly payment over a long period of time could impact your ability to save for other financial goals.
  • Opting for a long-term loan over a short-term one means you’ll ultimately shell out more in interest payments.

The bottom line

Moving forward with a long-term personal loan really comes down to your individual situation. The big idea here is to choose the least expensive financing option.

Using credit to live beyond your means is one thing, but debt that gets you to a better place and adds value to your life is another. If a long-term personal loan can help see you through a financial emergency relatively unscathed, it might be worth taking on some new debt.

As Ballou aptly put it: “The cost may be worth what it’s giving you.”

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Marianne Hayes
Marianne Hayes |

Marianne Hayes is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Marianne here

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Get A Pre-Approved Personal Loan

$

Won’t impact your credit score

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News

How Tax Refund Advance Loans Really Work

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

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MagnifyMoney did some digging around to give you the lowdown on refund advances. Here’s what you need to know.

The checkered past of refund anticipation loans

These so-called “refund anticipation loans,” as they were once called, aren’t exactly new. They’ve been around since the late ’80s, when e-filing was just picking up momentum.

According the U.S. Census Bureau, these loans typically came with triple-digit APRs and hefty fees. What’s worse, 2009 data put out by the IRS suggested that these loans were marketed mainly toward low-income taxpayers. And more often than not, they were presented in ways that were misleading and falsely advertised, according to the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC).

Not surprisingly, refund anticipation loans grew to be a source of consternation among consumer advocates. To carry them out, tax-prep companies would take their cut, then deposit the remainder of the refund into a temporary bank account that the taxpayer typically accessed via a prepaid bank card.

Fortunately, these loans became a thing of the past in 2012 amidst major outcry from consumer advocacy groups like the NCLC and others. Ira Rheingold, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates, tells MagnifyMoney that they were as predatory as payday loans.

“Thanks to consumer complaints and government action, things have gotten somewhat better, but these refund anticipation loans were known for sky-high interest rates and exorbitant fees,” he says.

How today’s tax refund advances work

Liberty Tax offers a free tax refund advance loan option.

These days, refund anticipation loans have been rebranded as tax refund advances. But the change runs deeper than just the name. According to top tax-prep servicers like H&R Block, Jackson Hewitt and Liberty Tax, these revamped products are 100 percent free for those who qualify. Advance amounts range depending on eligibility, but Liberty Tax is offering as much as $3,250.

Tax-prep servicers are exceptionally tight-lipped when it comes to the qualifying criteria. (See our handy chart below.) H&R Block is the most forthcoming, but there are still a lot of question marks.

Elgibility requirements include providing proper identification and having a “sufficient” tax refund, whatever that means.

However, there are a few things that could get you declined, including having bad credit, failing to present relevant tax forms like W-2s and 1099s, or not meeting certain income requirements, among other things. If you are approved, the loan amount is deposited into a temporary bank account you can access with a prepaid debit card, unless the servicer offers a direct deposit option. Either way, the loan itself is indeed fee-free and has a 0 percent APR.

Be that as it may, experts still encourage consumers to approach with caution.

“From the perspective of the consumer, I’d say they need to be very skeptical,” Adam Rust, director of research at consumer advocacy group Reinvestment Partners and managing director of the nonprofit WiseWage, told MagnifyMoney. “Private companies don’t provide free services and banks don’t make free loans.”

H&R Block is one of several tax preparer services that offers a tax refund advance loan to customers from $500 to $3,000.

Tax advances are indeed more accurately described as loans. The cash actually comes from banks, which are reimbursed when your refund comes in. In order to offer these advances, Rust says tax-prep companies cover the bank fees, essentially making them free for the consumer.

“It’s actually a cost item for the preparers, which is one more reason to suspect that these loans aren’t really free,” he said. “The price may say free, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be recovered within the cost of the tax prep.”

This is where things get a little less transparent. H&R Block declined a phone interview with MagnifyMoney, so I called up my local storefront and asked if there’s an additional charge for getting a tax refund advance. In other words, will my tax preparation fee be the same whether I get a refund advance or not? I was told it would be, but locking down an accurate estimate for the service isn’t easy.

According to the National Society of Accountants, the average tax-prep fee for federal and state returns during the 2017 filing season was $273 for folks who itemized their deductions; $176 for those who didn’t. The takeaway here is that the complexity of the return appears to increase consumer costs. To get an actual estimate, you’ll need to present your tax information, but the price you’re quoted is likely to vary.

In 2016, consumer advocacy group Georgia Watch sent mystery shoppers into paid tax-prep firms in low-income neighborhoods in southwest Atlanta. What they found was “a stunning lack of knowledge and professionalism from preparers, vast inconsistencies in preparation fees, and a wide range of outcomes given the same inputs at each site.”

Rheingold, who was not involved in the research, isn’t all that surprised by the findings.

“The quality of tax preparers in high-volume firms is often pretty poor,” he said.

Hidden costs to look out for

Refund transfers

If you’re declined for a tax refund advance loan, some tax preparation companies may offer you a concession prize: the chance to get a refund transfer.

A tax refund advance may be advertised as free, but the same can’t be said for a refund transfer.

Instead of paying your tax-prep fees at the time of service, you can defer it with a transfer. The tax preparer essentially creates a short-term account where your refund is deposited, at which point they’ll take their fee directly. H&R Block charges $39.95 for a federal refund transfer. It’s called an assisted refund at Jackson Hewitt, where it’ll run you $49.95. Meanwhile, Liberty Tax says you have to “consult your tax office” for pricing details.

It’s marketed for its speed and convenience, but Rust says taxpayers should think twice before opting in. Almost half of Liberty Tax’s filers last year ended up getting a refund transfer, according to the company’s 2017 annual report.

“That’s really telling to me because the refund advance is marked as free, but the refund transfer isn’t,” Rust said. “So why are so many people paying for the transfer?”

What Rust is getting at is that it appears as though the lure of a free refund advance gets people in the door, at which point they’re sold on the refund transfer after getting declined. Since offering these loans is a cost product for tax-prep companies, Rust says it’s a fair assumption.

The cost of accessing your funds

Prepaid debit cards essentially serve as substitute checking accounts for those who don’t have one. Many tax preparation companies offer prepaid debit card products that customers can sign up for in order to have their tax refunds deposited there. However, these cards my carry additional fees that can eat away at the value of the tax refund itself.

“One of the things we’ve seen is the growth of prepaid debit cards to access your refund advance,” said Rheingold. “Accessing your money through an ATM [often] comes with fees, which means you’re being charged to access your own money.”

Jackson Hewitt puts refund advance funds on the American Express Serve Card if you’re not doing a direct deposit into your checking account. H&R Block goes with the Emerald Prepaid Mastercard, and Liberty Tax uses a Netspend prepaid Mastercard.

Where to get a tax refund advance

Here’s what the major tax-prep companies are offering. Again, all advances are marketed as free, and you have to apply at a participating office by Feb. 28. Jackson Hewitt is in the game as well, but their website pushes people to visit a local office to learn more.

 

H&R Block

Liberty Tax

Loan amounts

$500, $750, $1,250 or $3,000

$500, $800, $1,300, $3,250

Eligibility

According to their website: "You first must meet certain eligibility requirements such as having a sufficient tax refund from the IRS, and provide appropriate identification. You then submit an application to BofI Federal Bank, the lender. The bank will evaluate your application based on standard underwriting criteria and makes the decision to approve or deny your application."

Must visit a Liberty Tax office for eligibility requirements

When is the advance available?

Typically the same day

Usually within 24 hours

Alternatives to a tax refund advance

You can always file earlier to expedite the arrival of your refund. Without a tax refund advance, most folks who file electronically can expect their refund in less than three weeks, according to the IRS. The most common cause for delay is if you’re claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit or the Additional Child Tax Credit, which will push your refund at least into late February.

Either way, for simple returns where the filer is only bringing in a W-2 and not itemizing, Rust says most preparers can probably complete the job in less than 90 minutes.

“Should that cost more than $200? Should the chance of receiving an advance justify spending that much when, instead, a low-income filer could go to a VITA site and have their return prepared for free?” he asked.

Rust is referring to the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, which offers free tax preparation for people who earn $54,000 or less per year. Those who are above the income threshold can also opt for out-of-the-box software like TurboTax. Prices vary here depending on the complexity of your return, but it’s generally much cheaper than going with a storefront tax preparer.

Final thoughts on tax refund advances

If getting a tax refund advance means adding to your tax-prep bill, Rheingold says it doesn’t make financial sense to get one.

“Even if it says it’s free, it’s a safe bet that these places are baking the costs into the tax-prep fee to make up the difference.”

That said, if you’re in dire financial straits, it may be your only resource for quick cash — but buyer beware.

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Marianne Hayes is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Marianne here

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Mortgage

Most Important Factors to Getting Approved for a Mortgage

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When David Inglis and his wife decided to move to San Diego last year, they were expecting a relatively smooth process. They’d keep the house they owned in Los Angeles and rent it out as a source of passive income, then they’d buy a new house in San Diego. They even had a 20% down payment ready to go.

“The problem was that we found renters and had to get out of our current house and close on the new house within 21 days,” Inglis, 40, a yacht broker, tells MagnifyMoney. That gave them just 21 days to get a mortgage — easier said than done. As Inglis put it: “Getting approved for a mortgage is a process, to say the least.”

With what felt like a moment’s notice, the couple had to gather up and submit everything from tax returns to current income statements, and do mountains of paperwork in between to get pre-qualified for a loan. From there, their lender picked through their credit scores, debt-to-income ratio, employment history — you name it. They closed on their new house in the nick of time at the end of 2017, and it was anything but a stress-free experience.

If you’re new to the whole buying-a-house thing, locking down a mortgage loan isn’t something that happens overnight. That’s not to say it isn’t worth it though. One recent Value Insured survey found that the vast majority of younger folks—a whopping 83%, in fact—still associate buying a home with the American dream.

At the starting line? There are a number of important factors that go into determining if a lender will approve you for a home loan. Here’s everything you need to know.

Getting approved for a mortgage — 5 things lenders are looking for

Credit score

Remember: A mortgage is a type of loan. When you’re applying for any type of financing, your credit score is perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle. This three-digit number essentially provides lenders with a general idea of your creditworthiness.

If you have accounts in collections or a history of making late payments, for example, you’ll have a lower-than-average score, which directly affects your loan options. That means you could get hit with higher interest rates or bigger mortgage insurance premiums, or both.

“Your credit score is really important on conventional loans,” John Moran, founder of TheHomeMortgagePro.com, tells MagnifyMoney. “Some other loan programs are less credit-sensitive.”

For conventional home loans, Moran says your credit score has to be at least 620, but for FHA or VA loans, you may be able to get away with a score in the 500s. But it’s not just about getting approved. The lower your score, the higher your mortgage rate will likely be — and that can add tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of your loan over time.

FICO, America’s leading credit reporting agency, looks at several important factors when determining your score. Your payment history, amounts owed, and length of credit history are chief among them. If you’re aiming for a home in the next year or two, you’ve got time to improve your credit if you start now.

Trust us — it’ll be worth the effort. You can see below what estimated mortgage rate folks would get based on their credit score and how much it could cost them over time. For our purposes, we’ll assume they’re all getting a $250,000 30-year fixed rate loan.

Score Range

APR

Monthly Payment

Total interest paid

760-850

3.914%

$1,181

$175,224

700-759

4.136%

$1,213

$186,760

680-699

4.313%

$1,239

$196,072

660-679

4.527%

$1,271

$207,462

640-659

4.957%

$1,335

$230,777

620-639

5.503%

$1,420

$261,180

Source: Calculated using the MyFico Loan Savings Calculator
Rates current as of Feb. 2, 2018.

You can find a detailed breakdown of your credit score by pulling up your credit report for free. Your report unpacks your credit history for lenders, so it’s vital to know what’s on it. This is crucial because you could end up spotting an error that’s weighing your score down.

If your credit score could use some work, don’t fret—there are plenty of ways to give it a good boost before buying a home. Establishing credit history, keeping your credit utilization ratio below 30%, and making consistent on-time payments are all on the list.

Debt vs. income

Your credit score goes hand in hand with your current debt load. Lenders specifically zero in on how your debt relates to your income. Together, this determines what’s known as your debt-to-income ratio (DTI)..

To calculate out your DTI, it’s fairly simple: Add up all your monthly debt obligations (not including your current housing payment unless you own the home and plan on keeping it), then divide that number by your gross monthly income. So if you pay, for example, $2,000 a month toward debt and you’re grossing $4,500, your DTI comes in at about 44%.

What’s a good DTI? Strive for 36% or less.

Fannie Mae, which sets the lending standards for the vast majority of mortgage loans, generally requires a maximum total DTI of no more than 36%. However, if the borrower meets certain credit and reserve requirements, they can generally get away with 45%.

Why? A high DTI is a red flag to lenders that you may not be able to afford a new monthly loan payment. In a lot of ways, it’s more telling than your credit score.

“The only thing that really matters to lenders is how this new monthly payment and your other debts relate to your income,” said Moran. “One of the quickest ways people can turn things around is by paying down revolving debts like credit cards and lines of credit, which increases your available credit and decreases your credit utilization ratio.”

He adds that making a smaller down payment in order to pay down revolving debt might improve your chances of qualifying since doing so will boost your credit score relatively quickly. Knocking those balances down also lowers your monthly minimum payment, so you may be able to qualify for a larger loan. In other words, your DTI isn’t the end-all-be-all when applying for a mortgage loan, but it’s pretty important.

Down payment

Lenders also look at how much of a down payment you can make, which ties directly back into your debt-to-income ratio. According to Bob McLaughlin, director of residential mortgage at financial services company Bryn Mawr Trust, putting down a higher down payment makes you more likely to get approved since it essentially decreases the risk for the lender. As a result, better loan terms and interest rates will likely be on the table.

“If you have the ability to put 20% down, you also avoid having to pay private mortgage insurance, which makes it easier to qualify,” he said.

Another perk is that you’ll have more equity in your home as well as a lower monthly mortgage payment. But for many, saving for a 20% down payment is a serious barrier to homeownership. Not surprisingly, a 2016 report put out by the National Association of Realtors found that the average down payment for first-time homebuyers has fallen in the 6% range for the last few years. The good news is that according to Moran, you can still get approved with a lower down payment.

“You can put 0% down for VA loans, 3.5% for FHA loans and even as little as 3% for conventional loans,” he said.

“There are people all the time buying homes with these minimum down payments, but it really all boils down to what you’re comfortable with and the kind of monthly payment you can handle.”

FHA and VA loans are usually the first low down-payment loans that come to mind, but options like personal loans and USDA loans may also be worth considering. Just keep in mind that taking this shortcut could potentially translate to a financial burden — low down payments typically necessitate higher insurance rates and extra fees to protect the lender.

That said, lenders are really looking at your big financial picture, not just your down payment size. If you’re putting down less, but have a good score and a steady source of income, you’re much more likely to get approved for a mortgage loan than someone with a lower score and/or spotty employment status.

Employment history

Our insiders say that your income and employment history are just as important as your credit score, DTI and down payment size. Again, it all comes down to lenders feeling confident that you can indeed repay your loan.

“You have to fit the underwriting guidelines per your profession, and there is little flexibility there,” said McLaughlin.

Piggybacking on this insight, Moran says that the ideal situation is if you’ve worked for the same employer for two years and you’re salaried. The second ideal way to get the green light is if you’re an hourly worker who’s been with the same company for at least two years.

But all this begs one obvious question: What about self-employed folks? The freelance economy is growing rapidly. According to the latest Freelancing in America survey conducted by Upwork and the Freelancers Union, these folks are predicted to make up the majority of the U.S. workforce within the next decade. Moran says that for these workers to qualify for a mortgage, they’ll need to have a two-year work history.

Check out our guide on getting approved for a mortgage when you’re self-employed.

“It’s a little bit of a kiss of death to start self-employment right before applying for a home loan,” he said.

“Most lenders won’t approve you because they want to be sure you’ll be able to afford your new loan payment. The only way to really prove you have a steady income is with two years’ worth of tax returns.”

In rare cases, Moran adds, you may be able to get away with one year, but it’s not the norm. Things are different of course, for self-employed newbies who are applying with a spouse who works a steady 9-to-5, which could tip the scales in their favor. Again, it’s all about the big picture. That said, a new salaried position will typically erase doubts stemming from a spotty employment history, as long as you have about two months’ worth of pay stubs, according to McLaughlin.

Loan size

All the factors we’re highlighting here are interwoven. The size of the loan you’re applying for fits right in. The higher your loan amount, the higher your monthly payment, which impacts that all-important DTI.

This is why you may be more likely to get approved if you’re seeking a lower amount. But whether you’re looking for $100,000 or $400,000, it really boils down to how big of a monthly payment your budget can absorb. (LendingTree, which is the parent company of MagnifyMoney, has a Home Affordability Calculator that can help you figure this out.)

The general rule of thumb here is to keep your mortgage loan (including principal, interest, taxes, and insurance) at or below 28% of your total income. Moran has worked with ultra-conservative folks who like to keep that number at 25%, but he says it really varies from person to person.

“Some people like to travel and don’t want to be house poor; others are homebodies and just really want a nice house because that’s where they’re going to spend their time,” he said.

“It’s all a trade-off, but either way, lenders will only pre-qualify you for what they think you can actually afford.”

How to get preapproved for a mortgage

Pre-approval is a term you’re likely to hear in the home-buying process. This is when the lender takes into account everything from your credit score and debts to employment history and down payment size to offer you a maximum loan amount.

When you come to the table with a pre-approved offer of lending from a bank, you’re already way ahead of the competition. And this can really give you an edge. When you’re living in a metro where most people are coming with double-digit down payments and pre-approvals to boot, you’re competing with very attractive borrowers.

Pre-approvals will ding your credit score, but the hit won’t be too bad if you complete several mortgage applications over a short time period, like 30 to 45 days. Multiple inquiries should only count as one hard inquiry on your credit report.

A good rule of thumb is to get mortgage quotes before you apply for pre-approval. You can get quotes quickly from different lenders at LendingTree by filling out a short online form.

Included in a pre-approval letter will be the estimated loan amount you might qualify for and your estimated mortgage rate.

The pre-approval process is also meant to prevent you from making offers on homes you can’t afford. But this doesn’t mean you have to actually take out a loan for the full amount. Many choose to get preapproved for their top number, then dial back during negotiations.

Final word

When it comes to mortgage approval factors, there are a lot of moving parts. Far and away, your credit score and debt-to-income ratio carry the most weight for potential lenders. From there, your ability to prove that you’re steadily and reliably employed is equally important.

At the end of the day, all that really matters is that you’re applying for a loan that you’ll actually be able to repay hiccup-free. The larger your down payment, the better your odds—especially if it eliminates the need for PMI. Either way, it’s probably in your best interest to meet with lenders before you start house hunting.

“You don’t want to put the cart before the horse by going with a realtor to look at houses, only to fall in love with something you can’t afford,” added McLaughlin. “Your emotions can definitely make the mortgage application process more stressful, which is why it’s best to go through the prequalification process first.”

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Marianne Hayes
Marianne Hayes |

Marianne Hayes is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Marianne here

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Life Events

The Ultimate Layoff Survival Guide

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

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Paul Catala, a 53-year-old entertainment reporter in Lakeland, Fla., knows firsthand about the struggles of unemployment. He was the victim of massive layoffs at a Tampa-area newspaper in December 2012. The result? A severance package of about $1,500.

“I was pretty much financially panicked,” Catala told MagnifyMoney, who also lost his health insurance. “All I had was my severance and nothing more than a couple thousand dollars in savings.”

As a single guy, he didn’t have a spouse’s salary to fall back on, but he made it work. During the year and a half that followed, he patched together a steady income by picking up a string of odd jobs and side gigs (more on this in a bit) before eventually securing a full-time job.

In 2017 alone, at least 255,000 planned job cuts have been announced, according to a report put out by the firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. (The bright spot, however, is that the report also found that job cuts are on the decline.)

If you’re newly unemployed and not sure how to move forward, this ultimate layoff survival kit is for you. Here’s everything you need to know about weathering the storm.

What to do when you lose your job

Step one: Don’t freak out

If the financial implications and the stress of having to find a new job have your head spinning, you’re not alone. The longer you’re unemployed, the more likely it is to take a toll on your psychological well-being. According to a 2013 Gallup survey, roughly 20 percent of Americans who’ve been unemployed for a year or more have been affected by depression.

But while it’s certainly wise to make a plan, don’t take such a long view that you’re overwhelmed by the enormity of unemployment. As the old saying goes: “Inch by inch, life’s a cinch. Yard by yard, life’s hard.”

Do one thing at a time to avoid “analysis paralysis” (aka feeling so overwhelmed that you take no action at all).

Step two: Exit your current job with grace

Getting laid off hurts, but think twice before storming out in a blaze of glory.

“Anything you can do to leave on a good note is a good idea,” career coach Angela Copeland tells MagnifyMoney. “Thank-you notes and goodbye lunches all help to give positive closure.”

The last thing you want to do is burn bridges on your way out. When applying for new jobs, Copeland says you’ll be asked for references the hiring manager can call, which will likely include your previous employer. It’s in your best interest to keep these relationships positive.
Negotiating your severance package before hitting the road may also be on your to-do list.

“Some people have been able to negotiate an extra month of severance because they’ve been there longer and can quantify what they’ve brought to the job,” said Shannah Compton Game, certified financial planner and host of the “Millennial Money” podcast.

“Try and correlate it to something positive, like revenue or growth you’ve been able to do for the company,” she said. “Keep good records of the successes you’ve had because you just never know when you’ll be able to use that.”

On a similar note, you might be able to use rumors of impending layoffs to your advantage. Game says that it’s usually the people in the early rounds of layoffs who get the better severance packages. If you’re likely to be on the chopping block, volunteering to be let go sooner rather than later could be used as a bargaining chip to secure a better severance package.

Step three: Get your finances in order

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Before you panic, sit down and do a thorough audit of your financial situation. List all your monthly expenses, from fixed costs like rent and utilities to discretionary spending like entertainment costs. Then factor in any income you still have, like unemployment benefits (we’ll dive into how to apply in a minute), a severance package, and any cash you have coming from side gigs or passive income streams.

Now for the obvious question: What does your savings account look like?

“The goal marker is to have three to six months’ worth of fixed expenses saved in your emergency fund,” said Game.

To help curb temptation, she recommends parking it in an interest-bearing savings account that’s separate from your regular bank. (We’ve rounded up the best online savings accounts here.) If you’ve got an emergency fund, getting laid off is as good a time as any to dip into it — that’s what it’s there for. Of course, the idea is to make your savings last as long as possible. This is why Game suggests retooling your budget right out the gate.

“Is there anything in there you can cut, or at least make better?” she asked. “Can you negotiate a better cellphone or internet plan? Are you overpaying in some areas? When you’re unemployed, every dollar helps.”

Another thing to think about is your 401(k). Getting laid off makes you ineligible to take out a 401(k) loan, according to Game, but you can withdraw from it — for a hefty price.

“If you pull out of your 401(k) and you’re under 59½, you’ll have a 10-percent penalty, plus whatever you take out is added to your taxable income, so it could shock people if they took out a sizeable amount,” warned Game, who also recognizes that sometimes you don’t have any other choice.

Tapping your nest egg should be an absolute last resort. If it comes to that, Roth IRAs are a little more appealing because you can pull out your contributions at any time without tax or penalty (It’s just the appreciation you can’t touch until you’re over 59½). If you’re financially stuck between a rock and a hard place, a Roth IRA could serve as an extra backup emergency fund.

As for a 401(k) from your old job, Game says you have a couple of options. Some companies will let you do a direct rollover, which is a hands-off option that’s way easier than rolling it over yourself. This way, you won’t get a check for that cash.

“If you do, you have to have it deposited into your new account in a short time period so you don’t get taxed on that amount, which is why it’s better to do these things electronically whenever possible,” said Game.

No emergency fund or Roth IRA to tap into? You’re not out of options. Read on for more ways to access cash during unemployment.

Step four: Rev up your job hunting efforts

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“One of the biggest mistakes I see from people who’ve been recently laid off is that the experience is so stressful that they want to take a break,” said Copeland. “They think, ‘I need a few months to take some time for myself.’ What they don’t understand is that the longer you wait, the harder it becomes.”

Begin by dusting off your resume and updating it with any relevant new skills, accomplishments, and/or trainings you’ve completed. Do the same for your LinkedIn profile, which includes adding keywords that potential employers may be searching for (To get an idea of what these are, Copeland suggests browsing job postings you’re interested in). You’ll also want to follow companies on LinkedIn and connect with influencers within those organizations.

When it comes to references, Copeland adds that asking folks to leave you a written, public recommendation on LinkedIn can do wonders. Future employers are going to be looking at your profile. Seeing that people you’ve worked with have positive things to say is going to make them much less suspicious that something negative happened at your old job.

One other thing: Fine tune your elevator pitch so you’re ready to comfortably, and confidently, talk about yourself at a moment’s notice. After that, step away from your computer and get yourself out there (literally).

“A lot of people are told to apply online — ‘If you’re a good fit, we’ll call you ‘— but very rarely is that true,” said Copeland.

“It’s one-on-one personal connections that are going to help you find a job, and those people will be most helpful and empathetic very soon after you’ve been laid off.”

Let your network know you’re actively looking for work, attend industry events, and reach out to people for informational interviews. In some cases, this might mean cold emailing a colleague of a colleague and asking to pick their brain over coffee. They could always say no, or even ignore you, but Copeland says that when up against unemployment, this isn’t the worst thing in the world.

Step five: Protect yourself against the worst-case scenario

If your job hunt stretches past the one-month mark, you could end up draining your emergency fund faster than anticipated. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the number of long-term unemployed workers (i.e. people who’ve been out of work for at least 27 weeks) held steady at 1.5 million as of December 2017. This makes up 22.9 percent of the unemployed.
If you find yourself in this boat, you’ll need to go beyond cutting cable and scaling back your entertainment budget to make ends meet.

“Can you call your student loan servicer and defer your loans for a few months?” suggested Game. “Remember, you’ll still be accruing interest when you do this, but it might help you out for a few months.”

Looking for other high-impact ways to free up cash? Game also suggests considering:

  • Taking on a roommate or renting out a room on Airbnb.
  • Getting a part-time job.
  • Taking out a short-term loan from a family member.
  • Using balance transfer offers to lower your credit card interest rates by moving debt to a 0% APR card.
  • Researching a personal loan. Going into debt is never advised, but if your situation’s getting dire, it may be your best worst option (It’s sure better than getting evicted or defaulting on your car payment).

This is precisely why Game says it’s so important to get your financial house in order while your career is going well. Flash forward to being laid off: Having a solid credit score is what’s going to enable you to get the best rate on a personal loan. The same goes for locking down a low-interest credit card, if it comes to that.

4 tips to help stretch your finances when you’re unemployed

How to apply for unemployment

Taking advantage of unemployment insurance can help stretch your savings and soften the financial blow of a layoff. Whether you qualify depends on a number of factors, one of the top ones being where you live; every state is different.

As long as you’re looking for work — and meet the qualifying criteria below — most states allow participants to collect benefits for up to 26 weeks (about six months). Just keep in mind that a severance package could impact how much you qualify for, depending on the state you live in.

  • Losing your job was out of your control: Being laid off generally ticks this box, but if you were fired or quit voluntarily, you’ll be ineligible.
  • You worked long enough and earned enough wages to qualify in your state: Every state’s threshold is different, but applicants must meet requirements for wages earned or time worked during an established time period in order to collect unemployment. You can research your state’s rules here.
  • You were laid off from a W2 job: In other words, you weren’t a freelancer or independent contractor. Since employers don’t pay unemployment taxes for these folks, benefits are typically off the table.

That said, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to how much money you’ll actually get. What you were earning, where you live, and whether or not you received a severance package may all come into play. Your best bet is to contact your state unemployment office to start untangling the details.

How to apply for food stamps

Applying for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), aka food stamps, is also a state-specific process. In order to qualify, you must meet resource and income requirements (SNAP provides this handy pre-screening eligibility tool to help clarify whether or not you qualify). Eligibility varies from state to state but is largely determined by your:

  • Resources: Things like bank accounts and vehicles fall into this camp. Some resources are generally off limits, like retirement plans and your home.
  • Income: You have to meet the income requirements outlined here. Some exceptions — like having an elderly or disabled person in your household, for example — may make it easier to qualify. Just keep in mind that any unemployment benefits you’re collecting will be factored in here.
  • Employment status: If you’ve been recently laid off, this one’s a biggie since SNAP eligibility is hinged, in part, on meeting work requirements. They include:
    • Registering for work
    • Not voluntarily quitting a job or reducing your hours
    • Taking a job if one is offered
    • Participating in your state’s employment training programs
    • If you’re an able-bodied adult without kids, you’ll also be required to either work or participate in a work program for a minimum of 20 hours per week to receive SNAP benefits for longer than three months in a 36-month period.

Ready to apply? Find your state here to get the ball rolling.

How to get help with a job search

There are a number of federal government programs in place to help see you through a stint of unemployment. CareerOneStop (backed by the U.S. Department of Labor) is packed with free job search assistance and training resources. Here you’ll find everything from job openings and resume guides to salary data and interview and negotiation tips.

COBRA might also make sense for newly unemployed folks. The program allows you to keep your employer-sponsored health plan after getting laid off. Before pulling the trigger on enrolling in a new health plan, be sure to check if COBRA makes sense for your health care needs and budget.

Pick up part-time work

Another way to unlock cash is to think of out-of-the-box ways to make money. Before Catala secured a new full-time job, he picked up a ton of side hustles to fill in the missing income. This included everything from tutoring at a local community college to cutting lawns to booking music gigs (He happens to be a pianist.). The takeaway? Look beyond your 9-to-5 skill set to pay your bills.

“At one point, I was doing like five different things and just making money,” said Catala, who earned too much from the gigs to collect unemployment.

“If you’re creative and willing to hustle, you’ll be fine. Even if it’s just $50 a week, that’s better than nothing.”

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Marianne Hayes
Marianne Hayes |

Marianne Hayes is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Marianne here

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By clicking “See Offers” you’ll be directed to our parent company, LendingTree. You may or may not be matched with the specific lender you clicked on, but up to five different lenders based on your creditworthiness.