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How to Maximize Your FSA and Transit Benefit Before You Lose It

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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The end of the calendar year is generally an important time to pay attention to your workplace benefits accounts. You may already have gotten an email from the head of your workplace’s HR department about making your elections for the coming year and maybe even made them already. While you’re at it, take a look at the balances in your flexible spending accounts and transportation benefits accounts — they may need your attention.

Workplace benefit accounts like your health flexible spending account (FSA) and transportation benefits accounts help you save money on the important line items in your budget like your healthcare bills and getting yourself to and from work. Since the accounts are funded with pre-tax dollars, you could help your dollars go up to 40% further on common expenses — like getting a checkup or a bus pass — that help you keep and maintain your job. However, if you don’t quite know how to best use these accounts, you could actually end up losing the money you have socked away in your benefits accounts.

Read on or click ahead to learn the ins and outs of using these benefits accounts and what you can do, if anything, to save your money when you’re in danger of losing it.

Flexible spending accounts

What is a flexible spending account?

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A flexible spending account (FSA) is an employer sponsored reimbursement plan. It allows you to set aside pre-tax money and spend it on eligible medical expenses.

For 2018, you can contribute up to $2,650 to your health FSAs, up from the 2017’s limit of $2,600.

In an ideal world, you’ll avoid losing income by using up all your funds for eligible medical expenses by deadline. But the reality is that it’s tricky to budget for medical expenses for the next year (generally you can only adjust your contribution from each paycheck during open enrollment or during a qualifying life event, such as marriage or birth of a child). Many find themselves with excessive balance in their medical FSA at the end of the year.

It’s actually not that flexible given its “use it or lose it” rule — you have to use all the funds by the deadline, otherwise you lose the money. Several plan advisers confirmed to MagnifyMoney that many people underutilize their medical benefits. FSAStore.com, a one-stop-shop website stocked with FSA-eligible products, reported that each year, hundreds of millions of dollars was forfeited back to employers simply because consumers do not deplete the funds in their accounts.

So how can you make the best use of your medical FSA and avoid wasting money? We have done research and asked experts for you.

How can I use my health FSA funds?

First off, the medical FSA reimburses you for you or your dependent’s expenses that are not paid by your health insurance.

The eligible expenses include copayments, coinsurance and deductibles, prescription costs, vision and dental expenses and many over-the-counter (OTC) items — prescribed or unprescribed. But note that you cannot pay your monthly insurance premiums with the FSA.

If you have money left over in your FSA, you may want to consider getting new prescription glasses, prescription sunglasses and contact lenses. Those are some of the most common big-ticket items you can purchase with your FSA.

You can also stock up on things like first aid kits, contact solution, bandages and sunscreen that you may use year-round.

Your FSA plan provider will have a list of eligible over-the-counter items you can purchase at the pharmacy with your FSA, such as this one. Many of the pharmacy sites have sections of their sites that list all the FSA eligible items.

Another possible way to use the money would be scheduling check-ups with all your physicians. Your annual physicals and other preventative care are covered by your health plan, but if you need special medical treatment, you can use the remaining funds for copays, coinsurance or prescriptions.

Many FSA providers recommend you visit FSAStore.com.

How much should I contribute to my health FSA?

Becky Seefeldt, director of marketing at Benefit Resource, a benefits programs provider, said the average 2017 contribution was $1,250, based on the company’s 300,000 participants. That’s roughly half of the maximum amount one could contribute for the year. For those who over-contribute to their FSAs, by the end of the year, Seefeldt said, they usually have less than $100 left in their account.

Experts suggest you contribute conservatively because there is a chance that the unspent money might be forfeited. But everyone has a different situation; it’s hard to give a single guideline that fits all.

You really need to do the math when budgeting your contribution for the next plan year during open enrollment.

Nicole Wruck, a national health practice leader at Alight Solutions, told MagnifyMoney that most of the company’s clients over-contribute every year. She suggests consumers keep track of their health care expenses they had over the last year and plan accordingly for the coming year.

You will need to do the math based on the factors below:

  • What did you spend on prescription drugs?
  • What did you spend at the doctor, or the dentist, or the eye doctor?
  • Do you have any upcoming things planned in the next year that might make you experience some additional costs? For example, are you or your dependent expecting a baby? Will you need new glasses?

To help yourself run the numbers, you will want to study your health care plans. Know your deductibles — the amount you pay for health care services before your health insurance begins to kick in — as well as your copays and coinsurance. Learn what your out-of-pocket maximum is — the most you have to pay for health care services in a plan year. After you hit your out-of-pocket max, your insurance company covers your healthcare costs for the rest of the year.

Visiting your doctors can also help. Sometimes your year-end doctor visits can help you estimate your next year’s out-of-pocket medical expense. For instance, if your dentist tells you that you will need orthodontic treatment in the near future, then consider maxing out your FSA for the next plan year to cover the big dentist bills your insurance company won’t pay.

What happens to leftover funds at the end of the plan year?

Traditionally, you would have to use up all your remaining funds by Dec. 31. But there are two options employers can adopt to make the rules more lenient now.

The roll-over option. It allows up to $500 in your FSA per year to roll over into the next plan year, so participants don’t have to rush to use the remaining funds. Seefeldt said about 40 percent of employers now adopt the roll-over option.

An extended grace period. This gives participants an additional two and half months — through March 15 — to use up the money from the previous year. At the end of the grace period, all unspent funds will be forfeited to the employer.

Depending on how your company decides to do with the FSAs, you may have a little bit more leeway to use your funds by the year end. Check with your human resource department and your FSA plan provider to find out which option is available to you.

What happens if I leave the company before I use all my FSA funds?

If your eligible expenses incurred before you left the company, you may be able to request reimbursement through your company’s claim submission deadline.

If you leave the company in the middle of the year but you have used more funds in your flexible spending account than contributed. You may not be required to pay back your company.

You have access to the total amount you have allocated for the year after your first medical FSA deposit, regardless of the balance in your flexible spending account. You are reimbursed based on your company’s pay schedule as you submit claims.

For example, if you elected to put $2,000 into your FSA throughout the year, and you have a $2,000 dental expense in May, your FSA would reimburse you for the whole $2,000, even though you’ve only contributed about $833 by then.

If you jump ship in August, you may not have to pay back the rest of your contribution. Your company will cover it: It agrees to take the potential financial risk when it signs up for the FSA program. Don’t feel too guilty just yet — your company may be able to offset the financial loss with the unspent funds forfeited from other employees.

Now, if you have money left unused in your FSA, first, try to use it as much as you can before you part ways. But If you can’t use it up by your last day, you may have a chance to extend your FSA benefits if you choose to enroll in COBRA.

COBRA allows former employees, retirees, spouses and dependents to get temporary continuation of health benefits at group rates. FSA is one of the COBRA-eligible benefits.

Generally, you have until the end of plan year to use up money left in your FSA through your prior employer, but it’s most common for someone to take their FSA COBRA for one or two months and use the funds quickly, Seefeldt said. Under COBRA, you can continue to make your health plan contributions (but pay an additional 2 percent administrative fee) before the new plan kicks in, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

Say you leave your company in August but there is $400 left in your FSA, and you plan to continue your health insurance coverage through your previous employer for two months before your new insurance plan kicks in, you can keep submitting expenses up to $400 in that period of time but pay an administrative fee that’s 2 percent of your monthly premium. But you are not required to purchase the health coverage in order to use your FSA balance.

Again, money in your FSA cannot be used to pay your premiums. But you can use it to cover eligible medical costs.

If you’re not eligible to continue your FSA through COBRA, try to use up the money before your job ends so that you won’t leave it on the table.

Transportation benefit accounts

What are commuter benefits?

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Transportation benefit accounts, also known as commuter benefits accounts, let employees use pre-tax dollars to pay for the costs of commuting. The accounts are meant to act as an incentive for employees to use eco-friendly transportation options like carpools, mass transit or bikes on their commute to the workplace.

Commuter benefits help many workers save on their transportation costs. But, it’s possible just as many workers aren’t completely sure how their transit benefit account works, or how to make the most of it.

How can I use my commuter benefits?

If you drive to a park-and-ride, catch mass transit or ride a bike to get to work, you may be able to use pre-tax dollars contributed to a commuter benefits account to cover some or all of the cost of your commute. However, if you ride solo to work or don’t use a bike or mass transit options available to you, you won’t be able to use commuter benefits to, let’s say, pay for the gas your personal vehicle burns during your bumper-to-bumper commute each morning.

However, you may be able to take advantage of parking benefits, which we’ll explain below.

You can use the money in a transportation benefits account to pay for any of the following eligible expenses:

  • A ride in a “commuter highway vehicle” to or from home and work.
    • This is another way of saying carpooling. Riding to work in a commuter highway vehicle counts if the vehicle can seat at least 6 passengers, according to the IRS. You might not have to go through the hassle of organizing a carpool with your coworkers or neighbors to use your transportation funds this way. Some commuter benefits programs allow you to carpool using rideshare apps like Lyft or Uber, too. All you’d need to do is use your commuter benefits card to pay for UberPOOL or Lyft Line rides and join the carpool when it arrives to pick you up.
  • A transit pass.
    • A transit pass is any pass, token or other tool that permits you to ride mass transit — like a train, ferry or bus — to work.
  • Qualified parking.
    • If you need to pay to park on or near your workplace, or you have to pay for parking in order to catch a ride on public transit for work or you pay for parking for any other work-related reason, you can use your transportation benefits to cover the charge.
  • Qualified bicycle commuting reimbursement.
    • You can use up to $20 per month in transportation benefits to purchase a bicycle, make improvements or repairs to the bike, and pay for bike storage as long as you use the bicycle for regular travel between home and your workplace. Be warned: If you use your transportation benefit to be reimbursed for commuting via bicycle at some point during the month, per IRS rule, you won’t be able to use the transportation funds for any of the three aforementioned eligible expenses in that particular month.

How much should I contribute to my transit benefit?

How much you contribute to your commuter benefits account will depend on how much you spend on transportation to and from work each month. Look at your monthly commuting expenses. Do the math to figure out what you would need to contribute from each paycheck to cover the cost of your commute to work. To avoid over-contributing to your transportation benefits account, be sure to to pull out a calculator.

Step 1: Estimate how much you spend on transportation expenses — monthly parking pass, bus pass, etc. — each pay period.

Estimating your commuter benefits should be easier than, say, trying to guess how many doctor’s visits or prescriptions you’ll need to cover in the coming year. “With a commuter benefit you are making an estimate,” says Joseph Priselac, Jr., CEO P&A Group, a Buffalo, N.Y.-based employee benefits administration company. “As long as you have a job and you know you’re going to keep going to it, you know how much you will spend.”

Step 2: Elect to contribute that amount for the year. The amount you elect will be divided by the total number of remaining pay periods for the year. The benefit will be deducted from each paycheck and placed in your transportation account for your use when you need it. If you change your annual contribution, the remaining number of deductions will be adjusted accordingly to reflect the change. If, for example, you elect $1,200 for the year and are paid monthly, $100 pre-tax will be deducted from your paycheck to your transportation account.

Beware of contribution limits

Commuter benefits: In 2017, the maximum monthly pre-tax contribution limit for commuter benefits is $255, or $3,060 in a year. Moving forward, the IRS may decide to change that limit. The federal agency reviews and sets the limit annually. If you bike to work, you max out at $20 per month.

Parking benefits: An additional $255 per month. If you’ve got to ride mass transit to get to work and pay for parking, Priselac says that limit is technically doubled, since you can max out $255 for parking and another $255 for mass transit passes each month.

Unless you are certain sure you will use up the maximum in transportation spending for the year, don’t simply contribute the maximum amount you can to your transportation benefits account.

What if I want to reduce my contribution?

If, for whatever reason, you decide you don’t need to contribute as much or you want to contribute more to your transit benefit fund during the year, that’s not a problem.

Unlike an FSA, for which your contribution election can’t be changed during the year, “you can change your election anytime you want,” says Priselac.

To clarify, you can change your commuter benefits election as often as your company allows. For some, that may be once per pay period, for others, it may be once per quarter. It’s one of the few benefits you can change mid-year. Consult with your employer’s human resources department to find out how often you are able to change your election.

“If you’re not sure how much you will be spending, start by contributing a small amount,” says Caspar Yen, Senior Director of Product Management at Zenefits, a human resources software company. “There’s no need to over contribute to play it safe.”

That said, if you feel you’ve contributed too much to your commuter benefits account to use up within the period, you can stop the deductions and use up the balance you’ve accumulated until it runs out, then restart your contributions. Just be sure to keep an eye on your transportation benefits balance so you know when to restart your contributions.

What happens to leftover funds at the end of the year?

Transit benefits rollover each year so long as you are still with the company and the company still offers the benefit. That means you don’t have to rush to use leftover funds at the end of the year.

This is in contrast to a flexible spending account, which has a ‘use it or lose it’ rule, which we covered above.

In a sense, there is no ‘plan year’ for transportation benefits, although your company may ask that you confirm you’d like to stay enrolled in the program each year when you elect your annual benefit contributions. Transportation benefits accounts roll over each pay period and should roll over into the coming period at the end of the year. That means there’s no danger of losing any of the money you’ve contributed so far, as long as you remain employed with that particular employer.

What if I quit my job or get laid off?

“As long as you are still working there and you have work related transit expenses the money stays,” says Priselac.

But if you quit your job or are laid off you could lose some or all of the money remaining in your transportation benefits account. If you’ve been over-contributing, any money you don’t use up will be lost to you, and returned to your employer.

The good news is that some benefit programs will give employees a grace period to submit reimbursements requests for any transportation expenses incurred during their employment — even if they quit.

If you know you may no longer be with the company or the company is planning to terminate its program, there’s one thing you can do to save your money.

“Before leaving a company, employees can make a large eligible purchase,” says Yen.

In the Bay Area, for example, an employee can purchase a clipper card with up to $300 in credits. If the transit method you take offers individual tickets, you could purchase a large number. Or, if you are able to load your transit pass with cash, you could place a large amount on your pass.

For example, those in the New York City metro area might load a large amount of money onto their MetroCard and use it up until it’s depleted.

Whenever you’re making a decision about benefits, it helps to talk to your HR department or the benefit provider, just to be sure you understand the rules. Mistakes you make when choosing benefits can end up costing you a lot of money, so ask questions and avoid leaving your decisions to the last minute of open enrollment.

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

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Best and Worst Airports for Holiday Delays and Cancellations

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.

With the holiday travel season fast approaching, be prepared for a record number of passengers expected to take to the skies across the country. U.S. airlines carried 72.3 million passengers in December 2017, a new all-time high, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS).

MagnifyMoney’s research team dug into 10 years of U.S. Department of Transportation holiday flight data between 2008 and 2017 on the 50 busiest airports in U.S. to find out which ones are the worst when getting to your destination on time is the goal.

Holiday travel is defined as flights that depart between Dec. 20 and Dec. 31 each year. A flight delay is when one that arrived at its destination 15 minutes or more behind schedule or was canceled altogether.

Depending on your airport of choice, the potential for flight delays can grow exponentially. We take a look at which airports have the best — and worst — holiday delays and cancellations. We also offer tips on how to handle them if they happen to you.

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Key findings

  • The worst delays are after Christmas. 66% of airports had their worst day for delays after Christmas. Dec. 26 is the most unfavorable day for holiday delays at 44% of airports. Airports with reputations for delays before Christmas include San Francisco International, Ronald Reagan Washington National, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International and Tampa International.
  • No geography is spared. Amazingly, airports toward the bottom of the list aren’t just located in the snowy Northeast and upper Midwest. Among the bottom 10 include Oakland International, Salt Lake International, Houston Hobby and Denver International. Among the 10 at the bottom of the list or canceled flights, Dallas/Fort Worth and Raleigh-Durham are two surprises, with about 3% of holiday flights canceled, thanks to occasional ice storms at each airport.
  • The Charlotte hub is the best. Among the major connecting hubs, North Carolina’s Charlotte Douglas International Airport, an American Airlines hub, fared the best, with 75.7% of flights reaching their destination on time over the December holidays. A mere 1.2% of flights were canceled, but beware — the least favorable day to travel out of Charlotte is Dec. 22, which could make getting home for the holidays more challenging for travelers. Atlanta — the world’s busiest airport and Delta Air Lines’ largest hub — came in second among the big connecting hubs, with 74.9% of holiday flights reaching their destination on time.
  • The Newark Airport hub? Not so good. This United Airlines hub, the airline’s third largest based on daily flights, only had 62.2% of its flights arrive on time in the past 10 years, with 4.5% of them canceled, thanks to its location in one of the most congested airspace corridors in the world. Try to avoid flying out on Dec. 27, the airport’s busiest travel day. Following Newark on the list for unfavorable connecting hubs was a bit of a surprise: Denver International Airport, United’s fourth largest, had 64.1% of its flights come it on time.
  • New Yorkers: Fly out of LaGuardia. Flights out of the city’s third airport — ranked a respectable 45 out of 50 for holiday delays — reached their destinations on time at least 75% of the time over the holidays, versus less than 65% at JFK and Newark. LaGuardia, which has strict federal limits on the number and distance of flights, has fewer of the regional feeder flights flown with smaller planes that are more likely to be delayed. Newark, as a major hub for United, and JFK, a major hub for Delta and JetBlue, have more of these flights than LaGuardia. When it comes to the most damaging delay of all – an outright cancellation – LaGuardia fares no better than the other two area airports, with 4% of flights canceled over the holidays.
  • Chicago ranks the highest for holiday delays. If you’re departing from one of Chicago’s two airports this holiday season, there’s about a 40% chance your flight will be late. Only 61.5% of flights departing Chicago Midway arrived at their destination on time over the past 10 years of holiday travel. O’Hare isn’t much better, with only 61.6% of flights arriving their destination on time. But it’s worse when it comes to cancellations, with nearly 5% of its flights canceled the last 10 holiday travel seasons.
  • Hawaii can relax. Travelers leaving Hawaii to see friends and family on the mainland have had it pretty easy, with 84.2% of flights departing out of Honolulu International arriving on time, and a mere 0.5% of them getting canceled, based on our data. Maui is almost as easy, with 83.7% of departing flights reaching their destination on time.

Be prepared for holiday delays

The key word for holiday travel is patience. The nation’s air traffic controllers handle 70,000 flights a day in the U.S., according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). While the vast majority of flights operate on time, there are situations like weather and aircraft maintenance that can cause delays and cancellations, causing a ripple effect.

Advanced planning and helpful tools won’t stop flight interruptions and cancellations, but they can help you recover more quickly so your holidays aren’t ruined. Below are some concrete steps you can take to help mitigate the damage of a delay or cancellation, making it more likely you’ll arrive at your final destination.

Choose flights deliberately. Early morning flights can be painful, but those flights have better odds of being on time as the plane has often arrived the night before and is already parked at the gate. This gives you much better odds of an on-time departure.

You have rights. The DOT requires all airlines to offer travelers access to their contract of carriage, a document that outlines what they will and won’t do for passengers in case of flight delays or cancellations. CompareCards, also owned by LendingTree, outlined the contract of carriage for the top eight U.S. airlines here.

Check your credit card. That piece of plastic in your wallet can be an invaluable tool when it comes to flight delays or cancellations. If your credit card comes with trip delay reimbursement, you can get up to $500 per airline ticket to cover things such as meals and lodging if your flight is delayed for more than 12 hours. And if your flight is either canceled or cut short for reasons including sickness, severe weather or other covered situations, trip cancellation insurance offered by your card can reimburse you for up to $10,000 for prepaid, nonrefundable travel expenses, including passenger fares, tours and hotels. Some cards also provide access to a concierge service that is ready to help mitigate flight delays or cancellations. Be sure to check your card’s terms & conditions for more details.

Follow the numbers. Travelers can check on an airlines’ on-time statistics and delays at the Bureau of Transportation Statistics or at the monthly DOT Air Travel Consumer Report. There’s also the Federal Aviation Administration’s tracking of flight delays on its air traffic control system command center website. A map shows airport delays by color code and allows you to search for delays by region or airport.

Pick up the (smart) phone. Apps like FlightView, FlightAware, Flight Board, Flightradar24 and FlightStats can not only track the status of your flight, but also give you regular updates if your flight is delayed or canceled. This information can give you a leg up on other passengers if you need to be re-accommodated if your flight is delayed or canceled.

Get notified. Sign up for an airline’s flight status text notifications on your smartphone. You’ll get flight updates that can sometimes be more accurate than those given at the gate. Plus airlines use this tool to proactively rebook your flight in case the worst happens, usually waiving change and cancellation fees.

Membership has its privileges. If you are among an airlines’ best customers’ loyalty program, you can call a dedicated customer service line that tends to be more responsive than regular lines. These specially trained agents can be your best friend when it comes to recovering from flight issues.

This article contains links to CompareCards, another LendingTree-owned company.

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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5 Hacks for Selling Your Home During the Holidays

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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Selling your home during the hustle and bustle of the holiday season is not always easy, especially for sellers in a cold climate. It will take a bit more effort to catch the eye of a potential buyer, but here are a few hacks to help make your home stand out this winter.

Be strategic about pictures

According to the National Association of REALTORS, 89% of shoppers find pictures very useful in real estate listings. But when selling your home in the holiday season, you might have to get a little bit creative. “Get pictures from different seasons, images of gardens and pools, and make a collage or video out of them. This will show what the home looks like in the spring, in the summer, etc.,” said Margaret Rome, owner of HomeRome Realty in Baltimore and host of the radio show “All About Real Estate.” She also suggested that sellers may want to have a photographer come out in different seasons even if they aren’t yet ready to list, just to catch the house looking its best in different environments.

One big issue during the holidays is decorations, which Brian Balduf, CEO of VHT Studios, says should be avoided in pictures. “Downplay the seasonal decorations if you can. Put them away or don’t get them in the shot because the photos get dated,” he said. If it doesn’t sell by the time the holidays are over, buyers will assume that it’s been on the market for a while.

If you have no choice but to take pictures with holiday decorations in them, you may want to look into the new process of virtual staging and digital enhancement of photos. “We use the technology to remove holiday decorations. In the studio, we can just take that out,” Balduf said, which can make it much easier to market the home in the winter. The technology can also remove snow from the yard or change the furniture and wall color, but it will not alter structural items.

Carefully choose holiday decorations

Selling a home during the holidays doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to avoid decorating altogether, but you may need to be more strategic when choosing how you show off your holiday cheer. Debra Carpenter of Sandpoint Idaho Real Estate suggests not going overboard. “It can be tempting to deck your home out like a winter wonderland, but too much decorating falls on the extreme end of the spectrum,” she said. “To sell your home, you want to stay somewhere in the middle.”

So what does that mean? It can mean sticking with celebratory seasonal basics that enhance the home’s cozy factor but don’t distract from its bones. “It’s fine to put a few holiday touches around the home, [such as] poinsettias in a vase, even an understated Christmas tree,” Carpenter said. “You want to be sure that the home can be seen in its entirety without having parts covered or changed with overdone decorations.”

Work with the weather

In most areas of the United States, holiday months are synonymous with colder temperatures. This could be one of the reasons that sellers often look at the holidays as a bad time to sell. Yet it may not be as disadvantageous as you think. “There won’t be as many people looking as in the spring, but the people looking at houses this time of year are serious buyers,” Rome said. She suggests showing off any beautiful snow scenes or fall leaves. Additionally, she advises sellers to write their listings with an eye toward the season, possibly positioning features such as fireplaces at the forefront.

If you’ve got potential buyers willing to brave the weather, you also want to show them how comfy your house can be in the cold. “Keep it around 65 degrees so your home feels warm and inviting,” Carpenter said. “A chilly home won’t come across as a cozy living space and can deter buyers,” she added. For those selling a vacant home, Rome suggests a programmable thermostat that can be controlled from a smartphone. “[Having buyers] walking into a cold house is a real no-no,” she said.

Curb appeal equals safety

Curb appeal takes on a different meaning in the winter and holiday months, especially with all the snow, slush and ice that time of year. “Be sure to keep driveways and walkways maintained and shoveled. You want buyers to feel safe and secure as they enter and exit your home,” Carpenter said. She also mentioned placing additional lighting to areas that are slippery and prone to freezing. Rome agrees, adding that sellers should keep salt or sand nearby.

As long as the safety aspects are covered, buyers are going to evaluate the aesthetics of the home’s outdoor appearance just as they would during any other season. “Make sure the house numbers are visible and prominent, the mailbox is new [or] freshly painted and the front door [is] immaculate,” Rome said.

Get the right agent

Time off is common during the holiday season — which can be great when you want buyers to come and see your home, but not so great if it’s your agent who’s out of the office. It’s important to make sure that you find an agent who’s willing to commit to showing your property when buyers are off of work, even if that means taking less time off for their own holiday celebrations.

One final piece of advice to remember is that selling your home when it’s ready is the priority — no matter the season. As Rome said, “Your house may not sell when you put it on the market at Christmastime, but it’s definitely not going to sell if it’s not on the market.”

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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Average Bank Interest Rates

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.

There are many types of savings accounts and other interest-earning accounts offered by banks and credit unions today. Here are the current average bank interest rates for some of the more widely available products. The averages are based on annual percentage yields (APYs) collected from nearly 7,000 bank and credit union accounts – including about 5,600 Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC)-insured banks.

Savings account yields, while historically low, can still vary widely among banks and credit unions. In general, the larger the bank, the less you may earn on your savings than you would if you shopped around for a better rate. While you might need a local bank for checking and a surcharge-free ATM, there’s no particular reason your savings needs to be languishing in a low-yielding account there as well. Shopping for a higher yielding account online is a relatively effortless way to find online banks that are paying much more in interest for the same type of savings products.

Average bank interest rates of select major banks

Bank

Interest Checking

Savings

MMA

1-Year CD

3-Year CD

Bank of America

0.01

0.01

0.02

0.07

0.55

Chase

0.01

0.01

N/A

0.01

0.45

Wells Fargo

0.01

0.01

0.03

0.10

0.40

Citibank

0.01

0.04

N/A

0.25

0.70

U.S. Bank

0.01

0.01

0.05

0.10

0.35

PNC Bank

0.01

0.01

0.09

0.15

0.35

TD Bank

0.03

0.05

0.15

0.20

0.45

KeyBank

0.02

0.01

0.11

0.15

0.20

Bank of the West

0.01

0.01

0.14

0.12

0.55

M&T Bank

0.01

0.02

0.05

1.40

0.90

Regions Bank

0.01

0.01

0.01

0.10

0.30

Source: DepositAccounts.com
Rates as of September 2018
CD Rates based on a $20,000 deposit.

Credit unions will generally pay more for your deposits than commercial banks. Below is a snapshot of average bank interest rates from earlier this year. In the interim, interest rate hikes from the Federal Reserve mean average bank interest rates are even higher now, particularly for certificates of deposit (CDs).

Average bank interest rates of select products

Product

Credit Union APY(%)

Bank APY (%)

Interest Checking

0.11

0.11

Savings

0.15

0.15

MMA

0.24

0.24

1-Year CD

0.92

0.75

3-Year CD

1.46

1.21

Source: National Credit Union Administration, June 2018.

Recent increases in various bank account rates

Interest checking. Rates on checking accounts are never going to be exciting. The core purpose of checking accounts is to provide security and accessibility of your cash, and sometimes offer modest interest on your funds. But even these rates have been ticking up slightly in 2018, to an average of 0.17% in September 2018. But some banks will offer much higher interest rates than the average if you’re willing to meet certain conditions. Minimum balances are often required to either earn interest or avoid monthly maintenance fees.

Personal savings account rates. A savings account is a bank deposit for which there is no expiration date. Often they’re referred to as statement savings or passbook savings accounts. Unlike checking accounts, which are often used for everyday transactions and check writing, Federal Reserve regulations limit savings accounts transactions to six per calendar month. And while the average savings account APY is still only 0.23%, many banks, especially online banks, offer savings accounts with APYs of more than 2.00% annually.

Money market account rates. Money market accounts embody characteristics of both checking and savings accounts. They’re similar to savings accounts in terms of offering higher yields than checking accounts, and similar to checking as they typically offer limited check writing (though still subject to six transactions as other savings products). Most money market accounts have minimum balance requirements. Although the average money market account rate is 0.30%, we’ve seen APYs from some banks in excess of 1.00% annually.

CD rates. Certificates of deposit often offer the best interest rates from a bank or credit union. When you purchase a CD, you’re making a time deposit at an institution, and you typically cannot withdraw any of the funds until the maturity date without paying an early withdrawal penalty. CD yields are the savings vehicles showing the sharpest increases in yields, especially those with maturities of one year or more. Currently, average APYs of a 1-year CD is still about 1.00%, but banks offering the highest yields will pay you more than twice that.

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5 Holiday Nightmares That Can Break the Bank

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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It’s the most wonderful time of the year — weeks of hustle and bustle, spending time with friends and family, giving and receiving, and eating to your heart’s content. What can go wrong?

Well, a lot, actually. The holiday season is not only an opportune time for gift-giving, but it also serves up several opportunities for accidents and mishaps.

But even though much can go wrong, there is plenty you can do to protect yourself. Here we’ll share some common holiday disasters and what you can do to avoid them.

Your home catches on fire

You leave your favorite pine-scented candle a little too close to your Christmas tree or you plug in one too many strands of lights into an extension cord, and before you know it, you have a fire on your hands.

These, and other scenarios, lead to fires every year. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), more than 1,000 home fires occur each holiday season due to Christmas trees, holiday decorations, and cooking.

Prevent it. Stephen Boccarossa, principal agent at Boccarossa Insurance in Milford, Conn., said consumers should take precautions when decorating for the season. “LED lights use a lot less wattage and won’t put stress on your wiring or cause a short or fire,” he advised.

“If you’re going to burn a candle, put it where everyone is going to be and have it high on the mantle or on a countertop,” he said. The NFPA offers handy winter holiday safety tips as well as Christmas tree safety tips.

Protect yourself. Now is an excellent time to review your homeowners or renters insurance policy to make sure the limits you have in place are adequate enough to replace your home and belongings should a loss occur.

A guest hurts themselves in your home

Your dear Aunt Agnes is staying with you and slips and falls on your icy walkway. She lands in the hospital and is looking for someone to pick up the bill.

Having guests in your home during the season not only brings good cheer, but it also brings an increase in liability.

Prevent it. Make sure your home is guest-ready and safe. Take a walk around both the inside and outside of your property and correct or remove any potential dangers, especially if you live in a cold weather area.

“I recommend making sure that if you do have company, you’ve cleared your driveway, walkways, and front steps,” Boccarossa said. “If you have Christmas lights outside, make sure your wires are hidden so [your guests] don’t trip and fall.”

Protect yourself. Review the liability and medical treatment coverage in your homeowners policy. Consider getting an umbrella policy for increased protection if you don’t already have one in place.

Your flight or cruise gets canceled

Canceled flights and crowded airports make a great scene for a holiday movie, but they happen in real life all the time. And when they do, travel delays due to weather, technical issues, or even illness can derail your holiday plans.

Prevent it. There’s nothing you can do about the weather, but you can reduce the chances of potential illness by eating well, getting adequate sleep, and reducing stress in the days and weeks leading up to traveling.

Protect yourself. Know your airline or cruise line’s cancellation policy when booking your travel. CompareCards, also a LendingTree company, provides a comprehensive summary of the top domestic carriers’ cancellation policies.

Check your credit cards too, as you may have some built-in protection when booking travel. Additionally, Boccarossa recommended purchasing trip cancellation insurance. “I would definitely consider it, especially in the winter,” he said.

Holiday shopping is stolen

Thieves love the holiday season as much as you do  — probably more. Between gifts stolen from your car to right off your porch, holiday theft is a common occurrence.

Prevent it. Do not leave big-ticket items like electronics or jewelry in your car. “Have a plan for your shopping,” Boccarossa advised. “If you know you’re getting something important or expensive, plan so that it’s the last thing you get before going home.”

Similarly, plan to have gifts delivered to your place of employment, or schedule the delivery during a time you’ll be at home.

Protect yourself. Homeowners or renters insurance policies typically cover stolen items, including belongings taken from your car. But keep in mind that you will need to meet the deductible before coverage kicks in — something consumers tend to forget, according to Boccarossa.

Also, be sure to file a police report in the event of theft. “If your car is broken into, please call the police,” Boccarossa advised. “If you don’t, the insurance company will question it and could use that against you in a future claim.”

Credit card fraud or ID theft

Again, the holidays are an opportune time for theft, and it’s not limited to physical items. Having to deal with credit card fraud around this time will definitely drain the joy from the season.

Prevent it. Be vigilant when out shopping in stores. Thieves can get the number off your card just by glancing over your shoulder, snapping pictures with their phone, or by using a scanning device. If applying for credit cards in stores, avoid giving your details verbally — complete a written application instead.

When shopping online, only purchase from trusted sites. Consider using a credit card with a low balance to limit the extent of damage in the event your information is stolen.

Protect yourself. Your credit cards and debit cards provide you protection in the event of fraudulent purchases, but remember that in the case of a debit card, any theft or false charges will immediately affect your bank account balance.

Make sure you follow your bank or credit card company’s procedures for reporting fraudulent activity and address it right away.

But don’t forget to enjoy the season

While there are things that can go wrong during the holidays, don’t let yourself get overwhelmed with stress. Instead, put these precautions in place to protect yourself and the ones you love, and make sure the holidays are safe and enjoyable for everyone.

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13 Ways to Protect Your Home (And Yourself) This Winter

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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Winter weather can take a toll on a house. Frozen water pipes, icy walkways and sudden windstorms that send tree branches ripping through your roof are just a few of the problems your home (and its occupants) can encounter during the cold winter months. Fortunately, you can take steps to protect your home from inclement weather and all the problems that go with it.

Plumbing

Freezing temperatures wreak havoc on your home’s plumbing system. When water freezes, it expands, and the expansion can lead to leaks and breaks in the system. Gary Findley, CEO of Restoration 1, a water damage and restoration company headquartered in Waco, Texas, recommended taking the following steps to protect your home against frozen pipes.

Let ‘er drip. When temperatures are frigid outside, keep one or two faucets running slowly at all times to prevent water lines from freezing.

Disconnect garden hoses. Disconnect water hoses on outside faucets. Connected hoses don’t allow water to drain out of the hose bib, increasing the risk of freezing and bursting pipes.

Close the door. Keep the garage door closed if water lines are in the garage.

Caulk it up. Seal all leaks that can allow cold air into your home where pipes are located. Use caulk and insulation around pipes that are exposed to the elements.

Keep cabinets open. Leave cabinets open under kitchen and bathroom sinks that are placed on an exterior wall to allow warm air to reach the pipes.

Don’t drop the heat. If leaving your house for extended periods, leave the heat on in the home. Don’t set the thermostat below 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

Roof

Small leaks and weak spots in your roof are easy to overlook in the warmer months but make it more vulnerable to snow and ice during the winter. Here’s how to make sure your roof is ready for the cold winter months ahead.

Stay on top of maintenance. If your roof is only a few years old, you may think it’s safe and sound. But John Myers, a real estate agent with Myers & Myers Real Estate in Albuquerque, N.M., said homeowners need to have their roof maintained periodically.

At a minimum, you should clear any debris from the roof, clear gutters and drains to ensure proper drainage, and inspect all areas for leaks and deterioration. If you notice any trouble areas, it’s time to call a professional.

“Having a licensed contractor perform maintenance on your roof right before winter can save you money and grief,” Myers said.

Trim those branches. High winds and the weight of ice and snow can cause tree branches to fall, damaging anything and everything on their way down. Trim any trees near your roof, driveway or other property.

“If you have trees near power lines, call your local utility company to see if they will trim the trees free of charge,” Myers said.

Appliances

Some home appliances get more use throughout the winter, so preparing them before cold weather hits can help you avoid the expense of emergency repairs.

Check your furnace filter. Your furnace’s filter serves two purposes. “One is to clean the air in your home,” Myers said. “The other is to keep debris out of your system.” He recommended changing these filters every three months.

Using a dirty filter not only means the air in your home is dirty, but it can also mean your furnace will have to work harder to keep you warm and can even lead to system failure and expensive repairs.

Clean out your dryer’s lint duct. John Bodrozic, co-founder of HomeZada, a platform that helps homeowners manage and maintain their homes, recommended cleaning built-up lint in the duct connected to the back of your clothes dryer. “Laundry loads increase in winter months, and a clogged duct causes your dryer to work longer to dry your clothes, which increases your energy bills,” Bodrozic said. But it’s not just about energy efficiency. Clogged ducts are also a source of house fires, so keeping them clear reduces the risk.

Fireplace

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), fireplaces, chimneys and chimney connectors account for nearly 1/3 of home fires each year. Make sure your fireplace is safe and ready to go before lighting that first match.

Call a chimney sweep. Dirt and debris trapped inside the chimney can cause a fire, which can spread to the rest of your house. The NFPA recommends hiring a qualified professional to clean and inspect your chimney and vents every year.

Choose the right fuel. If you have a wood-burning fireplace, choosing the right wood to burn is important. The Chimney Safety Institute of America recommends only burning well-seasoned wood that has been split for a minimum of six months and stored in a covered and elevated location. Burning wet or treated wood creates more smoke and emissions that are not safe to breathe.

Plan to dispose of fireplace ashes safely. When you dispose of fireplace ashes, put them in a heavy metal container, moisten the ashes and cover the container with a metal lid. Store the container outside, away from your house, for at least four days. After that, you can dump them in a garden or flower bed away from your house. Avoid disposing in wooded areas or sites with dry leaves. Do not forget to moisten the dumping area. Never dispose of ashes in a flammable container such as a paper bag or cardboard box.

Pest Control

The winter months usually bring a welcome respite from flying pests such as mosquitoes and flies, but it’s prime time for other pests seeking shelter in your home. Luckily, there are ways to keep unwanted house guests from getting too cozy this winter.

Plug up cracks and crevices. Karen Thompson from the insect and pest control blog InsectCop.net said one of the easiest things you can do is plug up all cracks and crevices that allow pests to get inside your home.

“Do a thorough inspection of the exterior as well as the interior of your home, take note of all the gaps and seal them up. Remember, pests like roaches, ants and even mice can get indoors through holes that are no bigger than a dime, so don’t overlook small cracks in the foundation or holes in vent screens,” Thompson said.

Store firewood safely. Firewood is a common way for termites and other insects to get inside your home, where they can cause damage. Thompson recommended storing your firewood at least five feet from your home to minimize the chance that termites, carpenter ants and wood cockaroaches jump from the wood to your home.

“When bringing wood inside, bring in a little at a time and store it on an elevated storage rack that is located as far away from walls or wood furniture as possible,” Thompson said.

Many of the perils that can befall your home in winter may be covered by your homeowners’ insurance — but not all of them are. And if you have to file a claim, you’ll likely have to cover a hefty deductible and spend many hours dealing with adjusters and contractors. The tips above won’t guarantee you never fall victim to a natural disaster, but some small investments now can better prepare your home to withstand winter’s wrath.

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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The Cheapest and Most Expensive States and Metros to Have a Baby

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.

cost of a baby
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Everyone knows that having a baby is incredibly expensive, from delivery or adoption costs to outfitting a household with strollers, bottles, cribs and layettes. But even if friends and family come together to provide everything needed on day one, there are ongoing costs of raising a child. So how much should a typical couple expect to budget each month?To find out, we looked at some average costs (and one tax credit), both by state and for the 100 largest metros in the U.S.:

  • The difference in rent between a typical one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartment
  • Average cost of a day care center
  • Average cost of baby apparel, diapers and wipes
  • Average additional food costs
  • Average cost of adding a dependent to workplace insurance
  • Federal tax credit

These are just the basic costs. Parents who prioritize higher-end goods, parent-and-me classes, baby sitters and other little luxuries to help with parental stresses can expect to spend more.

Hover over a state to review its costs and tax credit.

Key takeaways

  • The average monthly cost of raising a baby across all 50 states is $1,037.
  • San Jose, Calif., is the most expensive metro to raise a baby, with an average base cost of $1,705 a month. Little Rock, Ark., is the cheapest of the 100 largest metros, with an average base cost of $707 a month.
  • Massachusetts is the most expensive state for raising a baby, at an average cost of $1,521 a month. Arkansas is the cheapest state, with an average monthly cost of $723.
  • Day care costs are far and away the largest monthly expense, representing 72% of monthly costs, on average. The proportion is highest in New York state at 85% and lowest in Alaska at 59%.
  • New parents in 22 out of the 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia, can expect their monthly costs to go up by at least $1,000 — just for the basics.
  • Parents in 63 of the 100 largest metros can expect to increase their monthly costs by at least $1,000.

People in the 10 most expensive states (and District of Columbia) to raise a baby can expect their monthly budgets to balloon by over $1,200 a month.

Living in a large metro can mean having to set aside more money each month for a new baby. Residents in the 10 most expensive metros can expect their bills to increase by between $1,368 and $1,705 a month.

Here is a breakdown of average baby costs in every state. The difference in cost between the most expensive and least expensive state is almost $800 a month.

How baby budgets compare in the 100 largest metros

Why parents struggle with the cost of a baby

A lot of new families incur significant debt when having a baby. Those who get pregnant may face hefty maternal and prenatal medical bills and those who adopt may see high legal and travel bills. Parents may also rack up credit card charges, such as to get a car seat, bassinet or maternity clothes.

Many families don’t have access to paid parental leave, so they are forced to forgo several weeks of at least part of their income. All this can put new parents into debt even before their monthly expenses increase, and those families can add monthly debt payments (including interest) to the very basic monthly cost increases we describe here.

That — combined with any other pre-existing debt, such as car payments or credit card bills ripe for consolidation — can create daunting challenges to people who are expecting or planning for a first child. In a perfect world, everyone would be on secure financial footing before having a baby, but that’s not always realistic, and most American parents find managing the additional monthly expenses to be challenging.

How to reduce these costs of having a baby

Here are some of the ways that parents can trim costs in each of the categories we surveyed.

Difference in rent between a 1- and 2-bedroom apartment

Couples can get away with living in a one-bedroom apartment for a while with a small infant (it’s recommended that infants stay in the same room with their parents for at least six months). Most parents prefer a separate nursery, but it will be a while before the baby cares.

Average cost of a day care center

For two-income and single-parent households, child care is essential and expensive. While some couples may decide that one parent should leave the workforce to stay home with the child so they don’t feel like they’re working just to pay for day care, it’s important to remember that stay-at-home parents can suffer long-term and compounding economic consequences by leaving the workforce for a period, including loss of career and wage advancement, Social Security contributions and retirement fund contributions. (Of course, there are other reasons why a parent may decide to stay home with a child.) Other parents can negotiate child care with family and neighbors. There are also federal, state and (sometimes) local child care subsidies based on income.

Average cost of baby apparel, diapers and wipes

After the initial purchase of clothes for an expected baby, most Americans don’t spend much on infant apparel, but they do spend some. But diapers and wipes are unavoidable. Couples who have access to a washing machine may opt for a larger initial outlay to invest in cloth diapering, although it’s growing in popularity and people donate, trade or sell discounted used cloth diapers when their kids are potty trained. Similarly, used children’s clothing is easy to come by, and because babies grow so quickly, they’re usually barely worn or brand new.

Average additional food costs

Although babies don’t eat a significant amount of solid food for at least six months, some families use formula either by choice or necessity. Breastfeeding mothers often require significantly more calories, often complain of being constantly hungry and may be more conscious about the quality of food they ingest. Organizing meal plans around nutritious and inexpensive foods and coupon clipping may be the only way to save money on adult food, but it may be especially challenging for sleep-deprived parents. Money can be saved on avoiding prepackaged baby food by steaming and pureeing or mashing regular table food.

Average cost of adding a dependent to workplace insurance

Not every family has workplace insurance, and many who don’t will qualify for government insurance programs for their children, such as Medicaid. (It’s estimated that Medicaid covers nearly half of all births.) But even families that don’t qualify for state-sponsored insurance will feel the hit of adding a dependent to their employer-subsidized plans. One bright spot is that under the Affordable Care Act, there aren’t any copays for the frequent well-baby checks.

Federal tax credit

For 2018, parents will receive a $2,000 credit, which means that amount will be taken off the top of their tax bill. A portion of that will be refundable, so that even if a family owes less than $2,000 in federal taxes, they’ll get some money back. That’s not the only tax break available to parents, but it’s the only one that has a dollar amount that applies to every American.

Deductions — which is an amount of income on which people don’t have to pay any tax — are available for parents at both the federal and state level (although a few states don’t have income tax).

Pretax deductions can also be taken from paychecks through a dependent care flexible spending account for up to $5,000 for child care costs, and health insurance costs are also taken from paychecks pretax. And $2,650 can similarly be deducted from paychecks pretax for health care expenses. Families in 2019 can deduct health care costs from their taxes if they exceed 10% of their adjusted income (up from 7.5% in 2018).

That’s a high hurdle for most, and some married couples decide to file separately so that medical bills meet the threshold of one income versus their combined incomes. In general, parents should expect a significantly lower tax bill after the arrival of a child.

Methodology

Researchers used the following data to estimate the basic budget changes a family would experience with the arrival of a first child, both at the state level and for the 100 largest metropolitan statistical areas in the U.S.

  • Rent: The difference in cost between an average one-bedroom and an average two-bedroom from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
  • Child care: The average cost of in-center child care, as reported by Care.com. In instances where an average was not available for a particular metro, the state average was used.
  • Baby apparel, diapers and wipes: The former was taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Survey regional tables, and the latter two were reported by Walmart.
  • Additional food costs: This was calculated from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Survey by indexing the average total food costs reported in the regional table and applying that multiple to the difference between married couples with no children and married couples with children younger than 6 from the household units table.
  • Insurance: The difference in cost between the statewide average employer-subsidized plan for an employee and the employee plus another person plan from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Medical Expenditure Panel Survey.

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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What You Need to Know About the New Student Loan Servicing Plan

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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More than 11% of America’s student loan payments are more than 90 days delinquent or, even worse, in default. But the Department of Education is hopeful its new student loan servicing system, slated to debut in 2019, will get federal loan borrowers back on track.

The platform, called Next Generation Financial Services Environment, or “NextGen” for short, aspires to be a one-stop shop for anyone with federal loans to manage.

In advance of NextGen’s arrival, here’s what’s new, plus how it could affect you.

How NextGen came to be

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos created a stir in May 2017 when she announced an overhaul to the federal student loan system. At the time, DeVos proposed awarding a trillion dollars’ worth of federal loans, spanning 42.3 million customer accounts, to a single loan servicer — instead of keeping them spread out among the nine servicers, the contracts for which expire in 2019.

Reactions to the plan cited various pros and cons of a single-servicer platform, but there was pushback from critics who saw a potential monopoly forming, one that would be hard for the government to rein in, let alone serve borrowers best.

After hiring Dr. A. Wayne Johnson to lead the department’s Federal Student Aid (FSA) office, DeVos changed plans. In August 2017, the secretary announced a single online platform accessed by multiple servicers — NextGen.

The latest proposal kept DeVos’ initial promise of a simpler, more streamlined repayment experience for borrowers but balanced it with more competition among servicers.

What to expect from NextGen

If you’re a federal loan borrower, you’re probably familiar with StudentLoans.gov and the FSA’s main website, plus the sites of your loan servicers.

With NextGen, you’d only have one URL to bookmark. Even if you have a number of outstanding loans with varying servicers, you would manage every step of your repayment in one place, whether you want to adjust your repayment plan or consolidate your debt.

“It should be easier for borrowers to manage their student loans and to be placed into the most advantageous repayment programs,” said student loan lawyer Stanley Tate. “For instance, a public service employee should get bright, loud, ringing alarms that tell them some of their loans aren’t eligible for forgiveness.”

One complication is that NextGen will feature two sets of user experiences: one for older federal student loan types (such as now-defunct Perkins loans) and another experience for newer loans.

Still, housing all servicers in one place is bound to be a boon for borrowers with multiple accounts. You’d no longer have to track down the customer service phone number for each of your loans or keep track of sending payments to different places.

How NextGen will keep loan servicers in check

Of course, it’ll be a monumental task to upload about 42 million borrowers’ worth of loan information to NextGen. That would fulfill the FSA’s promise of achieving a “single data processing platform” that not only serves borrowers but also delivers excellent data about how they’re being served.

Via the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018, Congress mandated the education department use “common metrics” to judge the performance of servicers before deciding to award them federal borrowers’ accounts.

Once it’s live, NextGen could take that to the next level.

“There is a lot more latitude for Federal Student Aid to measure servicers against one another, because they will have more data available to them on how servicers interact with borrowers than they currently do,” said Colleen Campbell, who wrote a detailed report on NextGen’s development for the Center for American Progress (CAP).

As Campbell noted, however, the education department’s latest solicitation for servicers doesn’t include information on how they would be held in check.

“There has historically been such poor oversight of servicers and other Federal Student Aid contractors that I think it’s difficult to have faith that the organization will do what’s best for borrowers rather than what’s most cost-efficient,” Campbell said.

Navient might not be a match for NextGen

If you peruse the list of companies contending for government contracts to build NextGen, you might notice some familiar names, including Nelnet and the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority (MOHELA). You’ll also see technology companies without a background in student loans — IBM Corporation is the most recognizable — as the education department looks to build the back end of its new servicing platform.

However, Navient — currently one of the country’s largest loan servicers — is notably absent. It remains involved, however, as a subcontractor teamed with other servicers.

The company itself is a frequent target of lawsuits, and announced in November that it was taking the Trump administration to court over the education department’s handling of servicer contracts, as first reported by Politico. Navient alleges the department broke federal procurement rules during its search for NextGen contractors and put it at a “competitive disadvantage,” according to the lawsuit.

According to government data, Navient has been one of the most complained-about student loan servicers in recent years. NextGen on the other hand, if it lives up to its promise, could offer improved customer service, easier loan management and a clearer path to being debt-free.

“Navient has such a history of poor past performance, it would be difficult to imagine them making it into the new system if there is any integrity in the selection process,” Campbell said. “Their suit strikes me as another blow to that relationship.”

If you have student loans serviced by Navient, you may or may not be happy to learn that either way, it won’t be operating on its own in the future. When the time comes, you’ll need to lean on NextGen instead.

This article was originally published on Student Loan Hero, which like MagnifyMoney, is owned by LendingTree.

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.

Andrew Pentis
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Andrew Pentis is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Andrew here

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Resources for Repairing Your Home After Hurricane Florence

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.

Hurricane Florence
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Many homeowners are beginning to make repairs after Hurricane Florence’s devastating crawl across the Carolinas and Virginia in September 2018.

According to real estate data provider CoreLogic, the storm affected 624,000 homes, the vast majority unprotected by flood insurance. Standard homeowners and renters insurance policies do not cover damage from storm surges and other flooding. That requires a separate policy, typically purchased from the U.S. government, but consulting and actuarial firm Milliman said fewer than 10% of homeowners in the Carolinas had such coverage.

Many families facing large out-of-pocket costs from Hurricane Florence may be wondering what the next steps are to begin rebuilding. To help you get started, we’ve rounded up some resources available to people in the Carolinas affected by the storm.

If you’re looking for more general information on options for repairing your home after a hurricane, see our guide here.

Answers to insurance questions after Hurricane Florence

Flood insurance vs. homeowners insurance

While standard homeowners and renters insurance policies do not cover damage from storm surges or other flooding, they should cover damage from, say, a neighbor’s tree that fell on your house and left a hole on the roof where water came through. South Carolina residents with questions about claims may visit the S.C. Department of Insurance. North Carolinians can visit NCHurricClaims.com for information. Insured residential damages in that state may total as much as $7.5 billion while uninsured damages may nearly be twice as much. Total storm damage in the Carolinas and Virginia is expected to add up to $28.5 billion.

Wind insurance

Wind must be insured separately and sometimes this coverage is available only from a state-run insurer of last resort. In North Carolina, the Coastal Property Insurance Pool is available to coastal homeowners, with a similar wind pool in South Carolina.

Filing for federal disaster assistance after Hurricane Florence

If your home is in a declared presidential disaster area, you can apply for FEMA individual disaster assistance. If you do not have internet access, you can call 800-621-3362.

Coverage

Disaster aid may cover:

  • Temporary housing
  • Lodging reimbursement
  • Home repairs
  • Home replacement
  • Permanent or semi-permanent housing construction
  • Child care expenses
  • Medical and dental expenses
  • Funeral and burial expenses
  • Essential household items, clothing, tools required for your job and necessary educational materials
  • Heating fuel
  • Cleanup items
  • Damage to an essential vehicle
  • Moving and storage expenses

Disaster areas

As of this writing, DisasterAssistance.gov shows residents in the following North Carolina counties may be eligible for disaster assistance after Hurricane Florence:

  • Anson
  • Beaufort
  • Bladen
  • Brunswick
  • Carteret
  • Chatham
  • Columbus
  • Craven
  • Cumberland
  • Duplin
  • Durham
  • Greene
  • Guilford
  • Harnett
  • Hoke
  • Hyde
  • Johnston
  • Jones
  • Lee
  • Lenoir
  • Moore
  • New Hanover
  • Onslow
  • Pamlico
  • Pender
  • Pitt
  • Richmond
  • Robeson
  • Sampson
  • Scotland
  • Union
  • Wayne
  • Wilson

In South Carolina, Chesterfield, Darlington, Dillon, Florence, Georgetown, Horry, Marion and Marlboro counties are federally declared disaster areas. As of this writing, there are no declared disaster areas in Virginia.

FEMA may require you to have evidence that your insurance company declined your loss claim and will not cover your disaster-caused loss. When you apply for disaster assistance, you’ll need to provide identifying information like your Social Security number and a current mailing address.

It’s important to remember some FEMA funds are funneled through the state government, so depending on how your state allocates its resources, your reimbursement or assistance may take months. Some North Carolina survivors are still waiting on FEMA disaster assistance aid from Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

According to a FEMA spokesperson, those still waiting on aid from a previous disaster may still qualify for FEMA assistance.

Final thoughts

If you were one of the estimated 624,000 homeowners affected by Hurricane Florence, help is available. Sources of financial assistance range from your own insurance policies, to government assistance and loans, to charitable organizations, to simply borrowing from a private lender.

Rebuilding may be costly and seem overwhelming, so look to resources like United Policyholders and the Insurance Information Institute or your state’s emergency management office. North Carolina residents may visit ReadyNC. South Carolina residents may go here.

If you need advice when deciding between options, consult a fee-only financial professional who has experience working with homeowners following a disaster.

If you are considering bankruptcy, it’s recommended you speak with a bankruptcy lawyer about the options available to you and any protections provided by your state.

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.

Brittney Laryea
Brittney Laryea |

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

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