5 Financial Resolutions for the New Year

A brand new year provides the perfect opportunity to make meaningful life changes, including improved financial wellness. These five financial resolutions can help get your year off to a promising start.

Piggy bank and coins

1. Get on budget

Take charge of your finances by creating a budget. Start by calculating after-tax income and subtracting fixed monthly expenses. Then allocate portions of the remaining income for savings, important goals and a few things that just make you happy. If this sounds complicated, relax; today’s user-friendly budget apps can take a lot of the pain out of the process. To further simplify money matters, consider setting up automatic bill pay, an automatic savings plan and separate savings accounts for specific goals.

2. Build an emergency fund

Without a solid cushion, any unexpected job loss, medical challenge or serious property damage could lead to lasting financial hardship. An emergency fund with three to six months’ worth of expenses can protect your standard of living and offer peace of mind. Commit to making consistent deposits to this fund even if you can only spare a small amount each month. Because you may need to tap into emergency cash at a moment’s notice, choose a vehicle that gives you easy access, such as a savings or money-market account.

3. Prepare for retirement

Retirement may not be on the immediate horizon, but when the time comes it may well last 20 years or more. You’ll probably need somewhere from 70 to 90% of your final-year income for each year of retirement, and it’s unlikely that Social Security will be sufficient. Saving such a sizeable sum takes decades, so it pays to start early. Put as much as you can afford into tax-advantaged Roth or traditional IRAs, and if your job provides a 401(k) plan, contribute the maximum employer-matched amount.

4. Improve your credit

You likely know that credit scores affect financing approval and interest rates. But the influence of those three little numbers actually stretches much further. Prospective employers and landlords frequently check credit, so low scores may mean missing out on the best jobs and apartments. Credit scores also may affect insurance premiums, mobile phone offers, vacation costs, and even whether utility hookups require a cash deposit. For top scores:

  • Pay all bills on time.
  • Keep credit card balances at no more than 20% to 30% of the credit limit.
  • Carry a mix of debt types such as credit cards, auto loans and personal loans.
  • Monitor credit to catch and correct any errors or problems.

5. Knock down debt

Even with a great job, high-interest debt can sabotage financial health. To dig out from under this burden, consider concentrating efforts on your highest interest debt first while continuing to make timely smaller payments on all other obligations. When the first balance is satisfied, focus on the most expensive remaining debt and continue this way until you’re debt-free.

If debt from multiple sources is unmanageable, debt consolidation may help you regain control. This approach streamlines debts into one payment, often with reduced interest and a lower monthly cost. Depending on your individual situation, home equity financing, personal loans or zero interest balance transfer credit cards may be effective debt consolidation choices.

Smart money resolutions boost financial stability not just immediately but over the long haul as well. The bonus takeaway is the confidence that all life’s remarkable milestones and challenges won’t break the bank.

 

Another great blog from our friends at Nerdwallet!

© Copyright 2016 NerdWallet, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Smart Money: Best Moves for 20-Something Investors

Investing early makes saving for retirement much easier!

When it comes to investing early in life, you likely have two things on your side: time and flexibility. Although a 2015 survey found that most millennials don’t think they’ll have enough money saved for retirement, investing is one way to help build wealth for the future. Here are some of the best investments you can make in your 20s.

Real estate

If you have enough money set aside for a down payment, consider buying a home with rentable space, so you can live in one section and rent out the rest. Any rent you receive can help cover the mortgage and other expenses; the tax benefits of homeownership are substantial, and the home’s value will likely rise over time.

However, owning property comes with added costs, such as insurance, taxes and maintenance, while related income can drop if rental space goes unoccupied. There’s also the risk that property values might decline or rise only slowly, and if you wind up with an unruly tenant, evictions can be time-consuming and expensive. Unlike selling stocks or investment funds, you might find it harder to sell a home, should that become necessary. Property ownership generally should be regarded as a long-term investment.

401(k) plans

If your employer offers a 401(k) plan, it’s a good idea to participate and see whether a Roth option is available. If it is, you can designate some or all of your contributions for a Roth 401(k), which means you forgo an immediate tax benefit, but withdrawals, including any investment gains, are generally tax-free. Younger investors are often in a better position to invest in riskier vehicles such as stocks as part of their retirement accounts, because they have more time to recoup any losses they may suffer.

Index funds, or funds that track the index of a specific financial market, are typically an easy-to-manage way for investing in the stock market. From 2005 to 2015, for example, the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index of U.S. stocks grew an average of roughly 8% per year. While past performance doesn’t indicate future returns, $5,000 invested in an S&P 500 index fund that gains 8% annually, with $60 a month added to the investment, would produce a nest egg of about $200,000 in 35 years.

Of course, there are other alternatives such as investing in individual stocks or commodity funds. As you get closer to retirement, it’s smarter to take a less-risky approach by shifting money to more conservative investments such as government bonds. (Some brokers offer mutual funds that will do the rebalancing for you, investing heavily in stocks when you’re younger and moving the money more toward bonds as you approach retirement age.)

Roth IRA

If you don’t have a Roth 401(k) option, then a Roth IRA can be another way to accumulate tax-free wealth. These come with a contribution limit of $5,500 annually, along with other income-based restrictions. These funds can be invested similarly to a 401(k).

Keep in mind that investing retirement funds can expose you to the risk of losses. If you prefer the lowest possible risk, certificates of deposit offered by banks and similar savings certificates available from credit unions are generally insured for up to $250,000 but deliver relatively low returns.

As you decide how to invest your money, remember that starting now can make a big difference in determining the amount of money you’ll end up with later on, as any retirement calculator will indicate. Assess what investments make sense for you based on the money you have and the risk you’re willing to take to give your financial future a good boost.

© Copyright 2016 NerdWallet, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Thanks to our friends at NerdWallet for this informative post.

Ways to Financially Prepare Before College, Or Smart College Budgeting

college_nerdwallert_blog

No matter your major, you can graduate from college with an honorary degree in personal finance by paying attention to where your money is coming from and where it’s going.

Here’s how to get started:

Set a budget

Start by identifying the income sources you’ll have in college, such as wages from a part-time job, scholarships and financial aid. Then estimate how much you’ll be spending. You can probably ballpark costs such as tuition, room and board, school supplies, laundry and transportation.

You should also allocate some money for discretionary spending, such as food outside your meal plan and entertainment. Consider limiting these expenses with a weekly allowance.

Your budget can show you when you need to cut back on spending and when you can afford a treat. If you need help, try an online tool like Mint.com.

Apply for the right financial aid

There are two main types of student loans: federal and private. It makes sense to borrow as much as you can in federal loans before resorting to private ones, because federal loans generally have lower interest rates and broader repayment options.

Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, to get federal loans and see if you qualify for need-based aid, including grants, work-study and some scholarships.

Do your best to figure out how much you’ll need before you take out loans, whether they’re from the government or a private lender. Either way, you’re on the hook to repay them, so borrow only what you have to.

Manage credit cards responsibly

Credit cards can be tricky, particularly if you’ve never had one. They’re useful tools for building a credit history — but they’re also fraught with danger if you overextend yourself.

To get the greatest benefit out of a credit card, use it wisely. That means paying off your balance in full each month to improve your credit score and avoid costly interest charges.

It helps to view your credit card as you do your debit card: You can’t spend what you don’t have. Speaking of debit cards, make sure you don’t authorize your banking institution to charge an overdraft fee if you inadvertently withdraw more money than you have in your account.

If you want a credit or debit card, consider getting one from a nonprofit, member-owned credit union like Wauna Credit Union. These financial institutions generally offer lower interest rates and fees than traditional banks.

Take advantage of your student status

Many major companies offer student discounts. Among them: Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Banana Republic. If you’re hoping to make a purchase and the merchant hasn’t advertised a student discount, there’s no harm in asking.

You can also save money on textbooks by buying used copies from websites such as Abebooks and Chegg.

A degree doesn’t guarantee you a great-paying job. But college graduates still generally out-earn people without degrees, according to a 2014 report by the Pew Research Center.

And this much is certain: Developing smart budgeting and spending habits in college will continue to pay off long after you graduate.

Peter Lewis, NerdWallet

© Copyright 2016 NerdWallet, Inc. All Rights Reserved

*Thanks to our friends at NerdWallet for this informative guest blog!

When to Consider Refinancing a Loan?

refi home laon blogThis article is courtesy of our friends at NerdWallet.

If you’re making payments on a mortgage or personal loan, you might be wondering whether it’s worthwhile to refinance. Refinancing, or replacing your loan with a new one with different terms, is a big move that requires some homework. Here are some important things to consider.

Define your goal

People refinance for many reasons. You might be interested in lowering the monthly payments to gain breathing room in your budget. Or your goal could be to pay less in total over the life of the loan. Some consumers refinance to replace a variable-rate loan with a fixed-rate one. Some nonprofit credit unions, like Wauna Credit Union, offer loans and mortgages to their members at attractive interest rates.

Homeowners may do a cash-out refinancing, getting a larger loan and taking some money out, in order to consolidate other loans or pay for home improvements. Others might refinance a Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loan to a conventional loan to save money on mortgage insurance. And some refinance for personal reasons, like adding a spouse to a mortgage or settling a divorce.

Check your credit

Your credit score is an indicator of how likely you are to pay back a loan, and lenders use it to determine how much they’ll charge you to borrow. Younger borrowers often don’t have long credit histories, and they end up paying higher rates as a result; a recent NerdWallet study found that millennials have the lowest average credit score of all age groups. But if you’ve had a loan for a year or more and have been making timely payments, it could be that your credit score has gone up enough to let you qualify for a lower-rate loan.

You can get a free copy of your credit report at AnnualCreditReport.com. That will allow you to correct inaccuracies that can hurt your credit score. Then, purchase your credit score from the credit reporting agencies for a small fee to see where you stand. Some credit card companies show a credit score on your monthly statement.

Add up any fees

When deciding whether to refi, factor in any fees and closing costs. The cost to refinance a personal loan may be minimal, but if you’ve obtained a mortgage in the past, you know that home loans can be expensive. Application fees, appraisal fees, legal fees and other closing costs could add up to 3 percent of the loan amount or more. And if your loan agreement has prepayment penalties, that could make a refi less attractive.

Refinancing can be smart option, whether your goal is to lower your monthly payments, save on the overall cost of borrowing or lock in a fixed interest rate. As always, it’s important to do your research to make sure that you’re getting a good deal.

Jeanne Lee, NerdWallet

© Copyright 2015 NerdWallet, Inc. All Rights Reserved