Michael Coleman

Michael Coleman

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How To Make A Budget You Can Stick To

October 25, 2021

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The return of – dun, dun, dun – Consumer Debt

March 18, 2019

The return of – dun, dun, dun – Consumer Debt

It might sound like a bad monster movie title, but the return of consumer debt is a growing concern.

A recent New York Times article details the rise of consumer debt, which has reached a new peak and now exceeds the record-breaking $12.68 trillion of consumer debt we had collectively back in 2008. In 2017, after a sharp decline followed by a rise as consumer sentiment improved, we reached a new peak of $12.73 trillion.[i]

A trillion is a big number. Numbers measured in trillions (that’s 1,000 billion, or 1,000,000 million – yes, that’s correct!) can seem abstract and difficult to relate to in our own individual situations.

While big numbers can be hard to grasp, dates are easy. 2008 is when the economy crashed, due in part to an unmanageable amount of debt.

Good debt and bad debt
Mortgage debt still makes up the majority of consumer debt, currently 68% of the total.[ii] But student loans are a category on the rise, currently more than doubling their percentage of total consumer debt when compared to 2008 figures.[iii] Coupled with a healthier economy, these new levels of consumer debt may not be a strong concern yet, but the impact of debt on individual households is often more palpable than the big-picture view of economists. Debt has a way of creeping up on families.

It’s common to hear references to “good debt”, usually when discussing real estate loans. In most cases, mortgage interest is tax deductible, helping to reduce the effective interest rate. However, if a household has too much debt, none of it feels like good debt. In fact, some people pass on home ownership altogether, investing their surplus income and living in more affordable rented apartments – instead of taking on the fluctuating cost of a house and its seemingly never-ending mortgage payments.

Credit card debt
Assuming that a mortgage and an auto loan are necessary evils for your household to work, and that student loans may pay dividends in the form of higher earning power, credit card debt deserves some closer scrutiny. The average American household owes over $15,000 in credit card debt,[iv] more than a quarter of the median household income. The average interest rate for credit cards varies depending on the type of card (rewards cards can be higher). But overall, American households are paying an average of 14.87% APR for the privilege of borrowing money to spend.[v]

That level of debt requires a sizeable payment each month. Guess what the monthly credit card interest for credit card debt of $15,000 at an interest rate of 15% would be? $187.50! (That number will go down as the balance decreases.) If your monthly payment is on the lower end, your debt won’t go down very quickly though. In fact, at $200 per month paid towards credit cards, the average household would be paying off that credit card debt for nearly 19 years, with a total interest cost of almost $30,000 – all from a $15,000 starting balance! (Hint: You can find financial calculators online to help you figure out how much it really costs to borrow money.)

You may not be trillions in debt (even though it might feel like it), but the first step to getting your debt under control is often to understand what its long-term effects might be on your family’s financial health. Formulating a strategy to tackle debt and sticking to it is the key to defeating your personal debt monsters.

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Debit or Credit? What's the difference?

March 11, 2019

Debit or Credit? What's the difference?

For many people, when purchasing items with a debit card or credit card, the only difference for them may boil down to simply entering a PIN code or scribbling a signature.

But what really is the difference? The answer may be a little complicated, largely due to misnomers and a blending of terms used by the public. Read on to see what the difference actually is.

A clarification of terms
The words credit, debit, and cash seem to be used so loosely by the general public that many people seem confused by what the difference is between them. But in accounting and finance, they have very specific meanings. For our purposes, cash is money that you can spend immediately. It can be cold hard currency of course – bills and coins which you might have in your hand or in your wallet – or cash can refer to the balance in your checking account. This is money that you own, and you can withdraw all of it right now, electronically or physically.

Credit is basically someone’s willingness to accept an IOU from you. Here we will use it as a noun. Buying on credit means the seller trusts the buyer to hand over cash – money which is spendable right now – in the future. Debit, on the other hand, is a verb, and it means to deduct an amount from a cash balance immediately (often a bank account balance). Of course, credit can also be a verb (meaning to add to a cash balance immediately). This mixing of verbs and nouns can make the distinction of the terms in everyday use difficult.

  • Cash is money you can spend right now, electronically or physically.
  • Credit is an agreement to pay cash later.
  • Debit is a verb that means to subtract cash from a balance right away.

When money is due
The major difference between credit and debit cards is the time when cash must be paid. Credit cards, standing in for a promise to pay cash later, allow one to purchase things even if said person has no cash immediately available. For example, if you need to buy some clothes for a new job, you might only have enough cash on hand to purchase one outfit. You may not receive any more cash until you get your first paycheck in two weeks. But you probably wouldn’t want to wear the same outfit every day for two weeks. What can you do?

This is when credit comes in handy: you buy all the outfits you need now, while making a promise to pay the credit card company back in the future. You receive your outfits immediately even though you don’t technically have enough cash yet. You need to complete some work before you receive the money, but the credit card company accepts your IOU in place of cash for the time being.

On the other hand, if you use a debit card to pay for the clothes, the cash will be deducted immediately from your bank account. Remember, the balance of your bank account is cash in financial terms because it is spendable right now. When you enter your PIN code, the bank checks that you have enough money to make the purchase immediately and, if you do, the bank authorizes the transaction. If you need new shoes for your job but don’t have enough money in your bank account, you won’t be able to use a debit card.

Interest rates for using credit cards
Why would anyone ever want to use debit if they could use credit? One reason is budgeting and discipline. However, a stronger reason can be interest: promising to pay later may come at a price, and that price is called interest. Credit card companies do not make these short term loans out of the goodness of their hearts. They do it for profit. If you borrow money for a little while – i.e., you take money and promise to pay it back later – you will have to compensate the bank, seller, or credit card company for that ability. Thus we potentially pay interest with credit cards but not with debit cards.

Why don’t we pay interest on debit cards? Well, because the money is already yours, of course.

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When is it ok to use a credit card?

When is it ok to use a credit card?

Some could say “never!” but there might be situations in which using a credit card may be the option you want to go with.

Many families use credit with good intentions – and then life happens – surprise expenses or a change in income leave them struggling to get ahead of growing debt. To be fair, there may be times to use credit and times to avoid using credit.

Purchasing big-ticket items
A big-screen TV or a laptop purchased with a credit card may have additional warranty protection through your credit card company. Features and promotions vary by card, however, so be sure to know the details before you buy. If your credit card offers reward points or airline miles, big-ticket items may be a faster way to earn points than making small purchases over time. Just be sure to have a plan to pay off the balance.

Travel and car rental
For many families, these two items go hand in hand. Credit cards sometimes offer additional insurance protection for your luggage or for the trip itself. Your credit card company may offer some additional protection for car rentals. You might score some extra airline miles or reward points in this category as well because the numbers can add up quickly.

Online shopping
Credit card and debit card numbers are being stolen all the time. Online merchants can have a breach and not even be aware that your credit card info is out in the wild. The advantage of using a credit card as opposed to a debit card is time. You’ll have more time to dispute charges that aren’t yours. If your debit card gets into the wrong hands, someone might be quickly spending your mortgage money, food and gas money, or college tuition for your kids. Credit cards may be a better choice to use online because the effects of fraud don’t have an immediate impact on your bank balance.

Legitimate emergencies
Life happens and sometimes we don’t have enough readily available cash to pay for emergencies. Life’s emergencies can range from broken appliances to broken cars to broken bones and in these cases, you may not have any other viable options for payment.

Using credit isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, if you plan carefully, you may reap several types of benefits from using credit cards and still avoid paying interest. You’ll have to pay off the balance right away to avoid finance charges, though. So, always think twice before you charge once.

Some credit cards offer consumer benefits, like extended warranties, extra insurance, or even rewards. There are some situations in which using a credit card may come in handy.

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The starter kit for building good credit

February 27, 2019

The starter kit for building good credit

Having a good credit score is one of the most important tools you can have in your financial toolbox.

Your credit report may affect anything from how much you pay for a cell phone plan, to whether you would qualify for the mortgage you might want.

Getting and maintaining a good credit score can be advantageous. But how do you achieve a good credit report? What if you’re starting from scratch? The dilemma is like the chicken and the egg question. How can you build a positive credit report if no one will extend you credit?

Read on for some useful tips to help you get started.

Use a cosigner to take out a loan
One way to help build good credit is by taking out a loan with a cosigner. A cosigner would be responsible for the repayment of the loan if the borrower defaults. Many banks may be willing to give loans to people with no credit if someone with good credit acts as a cosigner on the loan to help ensure the money will be paid back.

Build credit as an authorized user
If you don’t want or need to take out a loan with a cosigner, you may want to consider building credit as an authorized user of someone else’s credit card – like a parent, close friend, or relative you trust. The credit card holder would add you as an authorized user of the card. Over time if the credit account remains in good standing, you would begin building credit.

Apply for a store credit card to build your credit
Another way to start building your credit record is to secure a store credit card. Store credit cards may be easier to qualify for than major credit cards because they usually have lower credit limits and higher interest rates. A store credit card may help you build good credit if you make the payments on time every month. Also be sure to pay the card balance off each month to avoid paying interest.

Keep student loans in good standing
If there is an upside to student loan debt, it’s that having a student loan can help build credit and may be easy to qualify for. Just keep in mind, as with any loan, to make payments on time.

Good credit takes time
Building a good credit report takes time, but we all must start somewhere. Your credit score can affect many aspects of your financial health, so it’s worth it to build and maintain a good credit report. Start small and don’t bite off more than you can chew. Most importantly, as you begin building credit, protect it by avoiding credit card debt and making your payments on time.

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Top 10 ways to save more this year

February 25, 2019

Top 10 ways to save more this year

If you’re still writing “2018” on your checks, then it’s not too late to commit to a few New Year’s resolutions for 2019!

Here are some ideas for financial changes you can put in place today that can help get you closer to your saving and retirement goals.

1) Start a budget
There are few things that can paint your future financial picture as clearly as starting a household budget. In the process, you’ll track your spending – both in the past and in the future – and you’ll identify wasteful expenses as well as establish your priorities.

2) Start couponing
Once upon a time, clipping coupons could be quite a chore. Now, mobile apps make finding coupons for popular stores effortless, and there are online websites that provide promotional codes for all sorts of brands. If someone gave you money for buying something you were going to buy anyway, you’d take it, right?

3) Target home energy costs
Is your thermostat programmable? You can adjust your home temperature while you’re at work. Do you need to fix the insulation in the attic or that gap under the front door? Get to it as soon as you can! The longer you let those things go equates to money you might be saving on your energy costs.

4) Buy “pre-owned” items
When we think “pre-owned” we tend to think of cars. But the truth is that almost all consumer items depreciate. How much might you save by buying a refurbished phone instead of a new phone? Used laptops may cost a fraction of what you’d pay for a brand new computer. When it’s time to replace household items, consider buying used.

5) Use the 30 Day Rule to keep impulse spending in check
If you’ve got money burning a hole in your pocket, just wait. It won’t really burn you. By waiting 30 days before making a purchase, you’ll have time to decide if you really need the item or if it was just an impulse buy.

6) Use a shopping list
Want a way to stay focused when shopping and avoid wasteful spending? It might seem obvious, but get in the habit of using a shopping list. Before you head to the store, take a few minutes and write out a list (on paper or your phone), and include only the items you need. Stick to the list!

7) Quit smoking
Smoking seems to be less common these days, but for many households it’s still a costly expense that literally goes up in smoke. Think about how much you could put towards your retirement instead if you kicked the habit. (As a bonus, your health will probably improve.)

8) Stop using credit cards
Credit cards are the most expensive type of debt in many households. If you make a plan to pay off credit card debt and to save credit for (real) emergencies, you’ll probably wish you had given up your credit card habit sooner.

9) Cancel unused memberships and subscriptions
Memberships and subscriptions have a way of becoming forgotten – that is, until they automatically renew. Ouch. Keep the ones you want or need, cancel the others.

10) Cut the cord
Cable TV has become a norm but is your family really using it? Try to find less expensive ways to watch shows or movies online. Major broadcast networks can be picked up for free with an HD antenna.

Bonus ideas: Get a strategy in place to start building an emergency fund. Check your insurance policies to make sure you have the coverage you need. Research some ways in your community to have free (or nearly free) fun with your family.

It might take a little extra effort, but putting any of these ideas in place this year will help you and your family save more of your hard earned money and help get you closer to your retirement goals.

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How to live without credit cards

February 18, 2019

How to live without credit cards

Our parents, uncles, aunts, and maybe even our grandparents tried to warn us about credit cards.

In some cases, the warnings might have been heeded but in other cases, we may have learned the cost of credit the hard way.

Using credit isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it may be a costly thing – and sometimes even a risky thing. The interest from credit card balances can be like a ball and chain that might never seem to go away. And your financial strategy for the future may seem like a distant horizon that’s always out of reach.

It is possible to live without credit cards if you choose to do so, but it can take discipline if you’ve developed the credit habit.

It’s budgeting time
Here’s some tough love. If you don’t have one already, you should hunker down and create a budget. In the beginning it doesn’t have to be complicated. First just try to determine how much you’re spending on food, utilities, transportation, and other essentials. Next, consider what you’re spending on the non-essentials – be honest with yourself!

In making a budget, you should become acutely aware of your spending habits and you’ll give yourself a chance to think about what your priorities really are. Is it really more important to spend $5-6 per day on coffee at the corner shop, or would you rather put that money towards some new clothes?

Try to set up a budget that has as strict allowances as you can handle for non-essential purchases until you can get your existing balances under control. Always keep in mind that an item you bought with credit “because it was on sale” might not end up being such a great deal if you have to pay interest on it for months (or even years).

Hide the plastic
Part of the reason we use credit cards is because they are right there in our wallets or automatically stored on our favorite shopping websites, making them easy to use. (That’s the point, right?) Fortunately, this is also easy to help fix. Put your credit cards away in a safe place at home and save them for a real emergency. Don’t save them on websites you use.

Don’t worry about actually canceling them or cutting them up. Unless there’s an annual fee for owning the card, canceling the card might not help you financially or help boost your credit score.[i]

Pay down your credit card debt
When you’re working on your budget, decide how much extra money you can afford to pay toward your credit card balances. If you just pay the minimum payment, even small balances may not get paid off for years. Try to prioritize extra payments to help the balances go down and eventually get paid off.

Save for things you want to purchase
Make some room in your budget for some of the purchases you used to make with a credit card. If an item you’re eyeing costs $100, ask yourself if you can save $50 per month and purchase it in two months rather than immediately. Also, consider using the 30-day rule. If you see something you want – or even something you think you’ll need – wait 30 days. If the 30 days go by and you still need or want it, make sure it makes sense within your budget.

Save one card for occasional use
Having a solid credit history is important, so once your credit balances are under control, you may want to use one card in a disciplined way within your budget. In this case, you would just use the card for routine expenses that you are able to pay off in full at the end of the month.

Living without credit cards completely, or at least for the most part, is possible. Sticking to a budget, paying down debt, and having a solid savings strategy for the future will help make your discipline worth it!

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New Year, New (Financial) You!

January 23, 2019

New Year, New (Financial) You!

The new year is best known for resolutions. The trouble is that many new year’s resolutions don’t survive past the first month or so.

Why is that? You might suspect it’s because we set unrealistic goals or lack the proper motivation.

If you’ve got some financial resolutions you want to stick to, the key is to set realistic goals and have the proper discipline to hang in there, especially when the going gets tough.

Consider the following tips. Everyone can improve their finances and – as a bonus – you won’t end up with a basement full of barely-used exercise equipment that’s standing in for clothes drying racks.

Put away your credit cards
Do you have a fireproof box at home? (You probably should to store your extra-important documents, like the title to your car or your will.) This might be the perfect place for your credit cards. Many families struggle with credit card debt and in many cases, they aren’t even sure where the money actually went.

Credit can be a crutch that only ends up helping us postpone healthy financial habits. The frequent result is years of accumulating interest payments and growing balances that may prevent you from maximizing your savings. (Debt also may lead to household friction.) Lock the credit cards in the strongbox and make a pact with the rest of your household to use a credit card just for when you have a real emergency – and this would only occur if you’ve depleted your normal emergency fund.

Get your own life insurance policy
It’s great to see families insured by at least an employer-sponsored policy, but how insured are they really? Employer plans usually don’t follow you to the next job, and the benefit for your family is typically limited to a fixed amount, such as $50,000, or in some cases up to one to two times your salary.[i] That’s probably not enough coverage for your family – and it might disappear at any time if you were to change jobs. Get a quote for your own life insurance policy that better meets your needs and that you can control.

Make a budget
Many of us think we know where our money goes, but making a budget will illuminate your spending in vivid, full-color detail. You might startle your family with loud exclamations as you realize how much you actually spend on gourmet coffee stops, eating out, clothes, golf accessories, etc. It can add up quickly. A budget may not only help you cut spending, but it may also help you build your emergency savings (yes, this should be a budget item) and start piling away more money for retirement (another necessary budget item).

Know your number
Nope, not the winning lottery number. In this case, your number is the one that can help you reach a financial goal. Saving for retirement without knowing how much you’ll need or how much you can put away each month is like running a race blindfolded. You need to see the course and the finish line ahead. That’s your number. Whether saving, paying down debt, or accomplishing any other financial goal, you need to identify the number that will define your short-term targets and help you reach your ultimate destination.

If you need help with your goals or aren’t sure how to find the number you need to know to prepare for your future, reach out. I have some ideas we can discuss.

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Budgeting 101: Where should I start?

January 2, 2019

Budgeting 101: Where should I start?

It’s the new year so there are bound to be some new resolutions you want to stick to.

If one of them is improving your budgeting skills – or maybe just creating a budget in the first place – read on for some guidelines that may help reduce some of your expenses (including what you might call the essentials).

Start with debt and interest rates
If you have any loans in your name, rest assured there will be interest associated with those loans, unless you’ve got a really nice aunt who loaned you some money interest-free. From the borrower’s perspective, interest is simply the expense of receiving money from a creditor which you’re required to pay back over time. No one wants to pay higher interest than necessary.

In contrast to other expenses, like rent, food, or entertainment, interest itself produces absolutely no value for the borrower. The borrowed money may produce value, but the interest itself does not. For that reason, you’re going to want to pay as little interest on your loans as possible.

One strategy is to transfer credit card balances to lower APR credit cards – just beware of transfer fees. Read the fine print to make sure the new card actually carries a lower interest rate, as sometimes the rate after the introductory period may go up. If you can refinance any of your loans, like student, auto, or home, consider it. For example, there’s no reason to pay 5% if you can pay 4%. (Again, make sure you understand the terms and any fees involved.)

Slim down the essentials
This is the time when all items in your budget are going to come under consideration. Everything is on the table. For transportation, any reduction in cost you can make is going to depend on your location. If you live in a high-density urban area and you normally drive yourself or use public transit to get to work or other destinations, ask yourself if you can walk or cycle instead. These options often provide health benefits as well.

The key? Look at the essential sections of your budget and mentally run through how you obtain those essentials, like driving to the nearest grocery store or who your landlord is. Then brainstorm alternatives for paying for these items or services – anything is fair game! (For example, would your landlord reduce your rent if you help out with yard maintenance?) Finally, do a little research and analysis to see if those alternatives are cheaper (and feasible).

Eliminate non-essentials
The next step is to look at each non-essential and determine its utility to you. If you barely think about the actual purchase, you might have simply developed the routine of purchasing that item or service (think: “monthly movie subscription service you never use anymore”). In that case, the hardest part might be combing through your credit card statement and nixing the services you never use. Another example of routine, autopilot spending might be the soda you buy with your lunch. Do you really need it? Maybe not. Switching to tea or coffee that you can brew at home may be cheaper. And water is (usually) free.

Repeat this process with every non-essential. Are you really using your 10GB/mo mobile internet plan? If not, look for a lower, more cost-effective GB plan. The key here is to try to distinguish between convenience and necessity.

Don’t discount the discount
There are discounts everywhere, from loyalty programs to manufacturers’ coupons to seasonal specials. If there is an essential that burns your budget, it may be worth checking to see if you’re eligible for a government program.[i]

Some credit cards offer rewards programs, but be very careful to pay off the full amount each month to avoid accruing interest, otherwise your rewards could be negated.

Keep the big picture in mind
Sometimes it can be hard to justify the time and effort that might be involved to save $2 per day. It’s just two dollars, right? But look at the accumulated savings. Saving $2 per day for a year translates to over $700, or about $60 per month. If you choose to brew that tea instead of buying the soda, maybe you can afford the 10GB plan instead of the 1GB plan.

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[i] https://www.usa.gov/benefits

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Why have a good credit score?

December 12, 2018

Why have a good credit score?

A rare few may have little need for credit, and might not even concern themselves with whether their credit scores were high, low, or somewhere in between.

For most people, however, at some point in life we’ll need access to credit, which is why we should keep an eye on our credit scores and make adjustments to our financial behavior to help keep our credit scores as high as possible.

Interest rates are generally lower with better credit scores
As of December 2018, the average credit card interest rate can be anywhere from 15.37% to 20.90%, but can rocket up to 29.99% in some cases if a payment is missed and you fall prey to a late payment penalty. On the other side of the scale, high credit scores can earn interest rates that are lower than average, which may reduce the cost of credit if you need it.[i]

It’s easy to pick on credit cards because of their typically high interest rates, but a good credit score may save you money on long-term loans like your mortgage, or on loans that occur repeatedly, such as auto loans. Auto leasing rates can also be considerably less expensive if you have good credit.[ii]

A higher interest rate on one or two balances may not seem like a big deal. However, your credit score is probably affecting the rates on all or most of your credit-based transactions, which may cost you money every month (or may save you money every month).

Insurance rates can be lower
It’s become commonplace for insurers to weigh credit as a risk factor when determining premiums for auto or home insurance. Somewhere in their loss statistics, insurers found a correlation between credit and risk of a loss, and as a result, depending on your state, consumers with a good credit score can generally expect lower insurance rates if all other factors are equal.[iii] In most households, insurance is a sizable monthly expense, so keeping your rates as low as possible can be beneficial to your budget.

Avoid security deposits and get easier approval
Your credit score comes into play with expenses such as utilities.[iv] Utility providers routinely require security deposits before beginning service for many consumers. With a good credit score, it may be possible to bypass security deposit requirements or to earn a reduced security deposit amount, keeping more cash freed up to use as you see fit.

The same concept also applies to cell phone service providers. With a good credit score, you’ll probably have more choices from providers, and be able to get later model phones sooner. Without a good credit score, however, you may be forced to choose from no contract providers, which often have service limitations or a smaller offering of mobile devices.

Taking steps to protect your credit score and to improve it, if it needs a little help, may save you money in the long run and open up new opportunities.

Have you checked your credit score lately? It’s free![v]

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Ways to pay off your mortgage faster

December 10, 2018

Ways to pay off your mortgage faster

It’s paradoxical how owning a home might make you feel more secure.

But it may also be a constant source of worry, particularly if you still have a hefty mortgage payment each month. For some, having a mortgage is simply a part of life. But for others, it can be an encumbrance, especially once you realize that your interest expense might cost as much as the home itself over the course of a 30-year loan.

Whether your goal is becoming mortgage-free or you just don’t want to pay interest to your lender for any longer than necessary, there are some effective ways you can pay off your mortgage faster.

Make bi-weekly payments instead of monthly payments
Many of us get paid weekly or bi-weekly (meaning every two weeks). A standard mortgage has twelve monthly payments. While we tend to think of a month as having four weeks, there are actually around 4.25 weeks in a month. This seemingly small discrepancy in time can work to your advantage, if you switch to making bi-weekly mortgage payments instead of monthly mortgage payments. At the end of the year, you’ll find that you’ve made thirteen mortgage payments instead of just twelve.

Over the course of a 30-year mortgage, switching to bi-weekly mortgage payments may shave some time off the length of your mortgage, depending on your mortgage balance and interest rate. You may potentially save thousands of dollars in interest expense as well.[i]

Make an extra payment each year
Some lenders may charge extra fees for customized payment plans or may not provide an easy way to make biweekly payments. In this case, you can simply make one extra payment each year by putting aside money in a dedicated account. If your mortgage payment is $2,000, you could fund your account with $40 per week, or $80 every two weeks, to save for an extra payment each year. If you use this method, your savings won’t be as dramatic as the savings you might see by making bi-weekly payments because the extra payments don’t reach your mortgage balance as frequently. If you have any spare cash, you might consider raising the amount that you save each week.

Round up your payments
Mortgage payments are almost never round numbers. Yours might look like $2,147.63, for example. Consider rounding up your payment to $2,175, $2,200, or even $2.500. Choose an amount that won’t break the bank but can put a dent in the balance over time. Depending on how much you round up your payment, this method may shave some time off your mortgage and potentially save you money in interest expense.

The key is consistency. Making one extra mortgage payment and then never making any extra payments again won’t make much difference, but sending a little extra with every payment may help make you mortgage-free a little faster.

Pro tip: Before you make any drastic moves to pay off your mortgage, first be sure that your emergency fund is well established, that your high-interest credit cards are paid off, and that you’re contributing enough toward your retirement accounts. The average rate of return on some types of accounts may be higher than the savings you might realize on mortgage interest. It’s possible that any extra money is more wisely put away elsewhere.

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Allowance: Is it still a good idea?

December 3, 2018

Allowance: Is it still a good idea?

Perusing the search engine results for “allowance for kids” reveals something telling: The top results don’t seem to agree with each other.

Some finance articles quote experts or outspoken parents hailing an allowance, stating it teaches kids financial responsibility. Others seem to argue that simply awarding an allowance (whether in exchange for doing chores around the house or not) instills nothing in children about managing money. They say that having honest conversations about money and finances with your kids is a better solution.

According to a recent poll, the average allowance for kids age 4 to 14 is just under $9 per week, about $450 per year.[i] By age 14, the average allowance is over $12 per week. Some studies seem to indicate that, in most cases, very little of a child’s allowance is saved. As parents, we may not have needed a study to figure that one out – but if your child is consistently out of money by Wednesday, how do you help them learn the lesson of saving so they don’t always end up “broke” (and potentially asking you for more money at the end of the week)?

There’s an app for that.
Part of the modern challenge in teaching kids about money is that cash isn’t king anymore. Today, we use credit and debit cards for the majority of our spending – and there’s an ever-increasing movement toward online shopping and making payments with your phone using any of the apps that are available.

This is great for the way we live our modern, fast-paced lives, but what if technology could help us teach more complex financial concepts than a simple allowance can – concepts like how compound interest on savings works, or what interest costs for debt look like? As it happens, a new breed of personal finance apps for families promises this kind of functionality. Just look at your app store!

Money habits are formed as early as age 7.[ii] If an allowance can teach kids about saving, compound interest, loan interest, and budgeting – with a little help from technology – perhaps the future holds a digital world where the two sides of the allowance debate can finally agree. As to whether your kid’s allowance should be paid upon completion of chores or not… Well, that’s up to you and how long your Saturday to-do list is!

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Understanding credit card interest

November 28, 2018

Understanding credit card interest

We all know credit cards charge interest if you carry a balance, but how are interest charges actually calculated?

It can be enlightening to see how rates are applied, which might motivate you to pay off those cards as quickly as possible!

What is APR?
At the core of understanding how finance charges are calculated is the APR, short for Annual Percentage Rate. Most credit cards now use a variable rate, which means the interest rate can adjust with the prime rate, which is the lowest interest rate available (for any entity that is not a bank) to borrow money. Banks use the prime rate for their best customers to provide funds for mortgages, loans, and credit cards.[i] Credit card companies charge a higher rate than prime, but their rate often moves in tandem with the prime rate. As of the second quarter of 2018, the average credit card interest rate on existing accounts was 13.08%.[ii]

While the Annual Percentage Rate is a yearly rate, as its name suggests, the interest on credit card balances is calculated monthly based on an average daily balance. You may also have multiple APRs on the same account, with a separate APR for balance transfers, cash advances, and late balances.

Periodic Interest Rate
The APR is used to calculate the Periodic Interest Rate, which is a daily rate. 15% divided by 365 days in a year = 0.00041095 (the periodic rate), for example.

Average Daily Balance
If you use your credit card regularly, the balance will change with each purchase. If credit card companies charged interest based on the balance on a given date, it would be easy to minimize the interest charges by timing your payment. This isn’t the case, however – unless you pay in full – because the interest will be based on the average daily balance for the entire billing cycle.

Let’s look at some round numbers and a 30-day billing cycle as an example.
Day 1: Balance $1,000
Day 10: Purchase $500, Balance $1,500
Day 20: Purchase $200, Balance $1,700
Day 28: Payment $700, Balance $1,000

To calculate the average daily balance, you would need to determine how many days you had at each balance.
$1,000 x 9 days
$1,500 x 10 days
$1,700 x 8 days
$1,000 x 3 days

Some of the multiplied numbers below might look alarming, but after we divide by the number of days in the billing cycle (30), we’ll have the average daily balance.
($9,000 + $15,000 + $13,600 + $3,000)/30 = $1,353.33 (the average daily balance)

Here’s an eye-opener: If the $1,000 ending balance isn’t paid in full, interest is charged on the $1353.33, not $1,000.

We’ll also assume an interest rate of 15%, which gives a periodic (daily) rate of 0.00041095.
$1,353.33 x (0.00041095 x 30) = $16.68 finance charge

$16.68 may not sound like a lot of money, but this example is only about 1/12th of the average household credit card debt, which is $15,482 for households that carry balances.[iii] At 15% interest, average households with balances are paying $2,322 per year in interest.

That was a lot of math, but it’s important to know why you’re paying what you might be paying in interest charges. Hopefully this knowledge will help you minimize future interest buildup!

Did you know?
When you make a payment, the payment is applied to interest first, with any remainder applied to the balance. This is why it can take so long to pay down a credit card, particularly a high-interest credit card. In effect, you can end up paying for the same purchase several times over due to how little is applied to the balance if you are just making minimum payments.

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3 Easy Ways To Save For Retirement (Without Investing)

April 30, 2018

3 Easy Ways To Save For Retirement (Without Investing)

Our retirement years will be here sooner than we think.

Ideally, you’ve been putting away money in your IRA, 401k, or other savings accounts. But are you overlooking ways to save money now so you can free up more for your financial strategy or help build your cash stash for a rainy day?

1. Pay Yourself First.
If you’re making contributions to your 401k plan at work, you’re already paying yourself first. But you can also apply the same principle to saving. (If you open a separate account just for this, it’s easier to do.) If you prefer, you can accomplish the same thing on paper by keeping a ledger. Just be aware that paper makes it easier to cheat (yourself). With a separate account, you can schedule an automatic transfer to make the process painless and fuhgettaboutit.

Here’s how it works. Whenever you get paid, transfer a fixed dollar amount into your special account – before you do anything else. If you don’t pay yourself first, you might guess what will happen. (Be honest.) If you’re like most people, you’ll probably spend it, and if you’re like most people, you might not really know where it went. It’s just gone, like magic.

Paying yourself first helps to avoid the “disappearing money” trick. Hang in there! After a while, as the money starts adding up, you’ll impress yourself with your savings prowess.

2. Got A Bonus From Work? Great! Keep it.
What do you think most people are tempted to do if they get a bonus or a raise? What are YOU most tempted to do if you get a bonus or a raise? Probably spend it. Why? It’s easy to think of 100 things you could use that extra cash for right now. Home repairs or upgrades, a night out on the town, that new handbag you’ve been coveting for months… Maybe your bonus is enough for you to consider trading in your car for a nicer one, or getting that new addition to your house.

Receiving an unexpected windfall is fun. It’s exciting! But here is where some caution is wise. Pause for a moment. If you had everything you needed on Friday and then get a raise on Monday, you’ll still have everything you need, right? Nothing has changed but the calendar. If you hadn’t gotten that bonus, would your life and your current financial strategy still be the same as it was last week? Consider putting (most of) that extra money away for later, and using some of it for fun!

3. Pay Down That Debt.
By now you’ve probably heard a financial guru or two talking about “good” debt and “bad” debt. Debt IS debt, but some types of debt really are worse than others.

Credit cards and any high-interest loans are the first priority when retiring debt – so that you can retire too, someday. Do you really know how much you’re paying in interest each month? Go ahead and look. I’ll wait… Once you know this number, you can’t “unknow” it. But take heart! Use this as a powerful incentive to pay those balances off as fast as you can.

The cost of credit isn’t just the interest. That part is spelled out in black and white on your credit card statement (which you just looked at, right)? The other costs of credit are less obvious. Did you know your credit score affects your insurance rates? Keeping those cards maxed out can cost more than just the interest charges.

Every month you chip away at the balances, you’ll owe less and pay less in interest. (You’ll feel better, too.) And you know what to do with the leftover money since you knocked out that debt. Hint: Save it.

But keep this in mind – life is about balance. It’s okay to treat yourself once in awhile. Just make sure to pay yourself first now, so you can treat yourself later in retirement.

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6 Financial Commitments EVERY Parent Should Educate Their Kids About

6 Financial Commitments EVERY Parent Should Educate Their Kids About

Your first lesson isn’t actually one of the six.

It can be found in the title of this article. The best time to start teaching your children about financial decisions is when they’re children! Adults don’t typically take advice well from other adults (especially when they’re your parents and you’re trying to prove to them how smart and independent you are).

Heed this advice: Involve your kids in your family’s financial decisions and challenge them with game-like scenarios from as early as their grade school years.

Starting your kids’ education young can help give them a respect for money, remove financial mysteries, and establish deep-rooted beliefs about saving money, being cautious regarding risk, and avoiding debt.

Here are 6 critical financially-related lessons EVERY parent should foster in the minds of their kids:

1. Co-signing a loan

The Mistake: ‘I’m in a good financial position now. I want to be helpful. They said they’ll get me off the loan in 6 months or so.’

The Realities: If the person you’re co-signing for defaults on their payments, you’re required to make their payments, which can turn a good financial situation bad, fast. Also, lenders are not incentivized to remove co-signers – they’re motivated to lower risk (hence having a co-signer in the first place). This can make it hard to get your name off a loan, regardless of promises or good intentions. Keep in mind that if a family member or friend has a rough credit history – or no credit history – that requires them to have a co-signer, what might that tell you about the wisdom of being their co-signer? And finally, a co-signing situation that goes bad may ruin your credit reputation, and more tragically, may ruin your relationship.

The Lesson: ‘Never, ever, EVER, co-sign a loan.’

2. Taking on a mortgage payment that pushes the budget

The Mistake: ‘It’s our dream house. If we really budget tight and cut back here and there, we can afford it. The bank said we’re pre-approved…We’ll be sooo happy!’

The Realities: A house is one of the biggest purchases couples will ever make. Though emotion and excitement are impossible to remove from the decision, they should not be the driving forces. Just because you can afford the mortgage at the moment, doesn’t mean you’ll be able to in 5 or 10 years. Situations can change. What would happen if either partner lost their job for any length of time? Would you have to tap into savings? Also, many buyers dramatically underestimate the ongoing expenses tied to maintenance and additional services needed when owning a home. It’s a general rule of thumb that home owners will have to spend about 1% of the total cost of the home every year in upkeep. That means a $250,000 home would require an annual maintenance investment of $2,500 in the property. Will you resent the budgetary restrictions of the monthly mortgage payments once the novelty of your new house wears off?

The Lesson: ‘Never take on a mortgage payment that’s more than 25% of your income. Some say 30%, but 25% or less may be a safer financial position.’

3. Financing for a new car loan

The Mistake: ‘Used cars are unreliable. A new car will work great for a long time. I need a car to get to work and the bank was willing to work with me to lower the payments. After test driving it, I just have to have it.’

The Realities: First of all, no one ‘has to have’ a new car they need to finance. You’ve probably heard the expression, ‘a new car starts losing its value the moment you drive it off the lot.’ Well, it’s true. According to CARFAX, a car loses 10% of its value the moment you drive away from the dealership and another 10% by the end of the first year. That’s 20% of value lost in 12 months. After 5 years, that new car will have lost 60% of its value. Poof! The value that remains constant is your monthly payment, which can feel like a ball and chain once that new car smell fades.

The Lesson: ‘Buy a used car you can easily afford and get excited about. Then one day when you have saved enough money, you might be able to buy your dream car with cash.’

4. Financial retail purchases

The Mistake: ‘Our refrigerator is old and gross – we need a new one with a touch screen – the guy at the store said it will save us hundreds every year. It’s zero down – ZERO DOWN!’

The Realities: Many of these ‘buy on credit, zero down’ offers from appliance stores and other retail outlets count on naive shoppers fueled by the need for instant gratification. ‘Zero down, no payments until after the first year’ sounds good, but accrued or waived interest may often bite back in the end. Credit agreements can include stipulations that if a single payment is missed, the card holder can be required to pay interest dating back to the original purchase date! Shoppers who fall for these deals don’t always read the fine print before signing. Retail store credit cards may be enticing to shoppers who are offered an immediate 10% off their first purchase when they sign up. They might think, ‘I’ll use it to establish credit.’ But that store card can have a high interest rate. Best to think of these cards as putting a tiny little ticking time bomb in your wallet or purse.

The Lesson: ‘Don’t buy on credit what you think you can afford. If you want a ‘smart fridge,’ consider saving up and paying for it in cash. Make your mortgage and car payments on time, every time, if you want to help build your credit.’

5. Going into business with a friend

The Mistake: ‘Why work for a paycheck with people I don’t know? Why not start a business with a friend so I can have fun every day with people I like building something meaningful?’

The Realities: “This trap actually can sound really good at first glance. The truth is, starting a business with a friend can work. Many great companies have been started by two or more chums with a shared vision and an effective combination of skills. If either of the partners isn’t prepared to handle the challenges of entrepreneurship, the outcome might be disastrous, both from a personal and professional standpoint. It can help if inexperienced entrepreneurs are prepared to:

  • Lose whatever money is contributed as start-up capital
  • Agree at the outset how conflicts will be resolved
  • Avoid talking about business while in the company of family and friends
  • Clearly define roles and responsibilities
  • Develop a well-thought out operating agreement

The Lesson: ‘Understand that the money, pressures, successes, and failures of business have ruined many great friendships. Consider going into business individually and working together as partners, rather than co-owners.’

6. Signing up for a credit card

The Mistake: ‘I need to build credit and this particular card offers great points and a low annual fee! It will only be used in case of emergency.’

The Reality: There are other ways to establish credit, like paying your rent and car loan payments on time. The average American household carries a credit card balance averaging over $16,000, and the average Canadian owes $22,081 in consumer debt. Credit cards can lead to debt that may take years (or decades) to pay off, especially for young people who are inexperienced with budgeting and managing money. The point programs of credit cards are enticing – kind of like when your grocer congratulates you for saving five bucks for using your VIP shopper card. So how exactly did you save money by spending money?

The Lesson: ‘Learn to discipline yourself to save for things you want to buy and then pay for them with cash. Focus on paying off debt – like student loans and car loans – not going further into the hole. And when you have to get a credit card, make sure to pay it off every month, and look for cards with rewards points. They are, in essence, paying you! But be sure to keep Lesson 5 in mind!’

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Pros and Cons of Simple Interest

January 29, 2018

Pros and Cons of Simple Interest

Brace yourself: You’ve been brought here under false pretenses.

This post is not so much about a list of pros and cons as it is about one big pro and one big con concerning simple interest accounts. There are many fine-tooth details you could get into when looking for the best ways to use your money. But when you’re just beginning your journey to financial independence, the big YES and NO below are important to keep in mind. In a nutshell, interest will either cost you money or earn you money. Here’s how…

The Pro of Simple Interest: Paying Back Money

Credit cards, mortgages, car loans, student debt – odds are that you’re familiar with at least one of these loans at this point. When you take out a loan, look for one that lets you pay back your principal amount with simple interest. This means that the overall amount you’ll owe will be interest calculated against the principal, or initial amount, that was loaned to you. And the principle decreases as you pay back the loan. So the sooner you pay off your loan, you’re actually lowering the amount of money in interest that you’re required to pay back as part of your loan agreement.

The Con of Simple Interest: Growing Money

When you want to grow your money, an account based on simple interest is not the way to go. Setting your money aside in an account with compound interest shows infinitely better results for growing your money.

For example, if you wanted to grow $10,000 for 10 years in an account at 3% simple interest, the first few years would look like this:

  • Year 1: $10,000 + 300 = $10,300
  • Year 2: $10,300 + 300 = $10,600
  • Year 3: $10,600 + 300 = $10,900

In a simple interest account, the 3% interest you’ll earn is a fixed sum taken from the principal amount added to the account. And this is the amount that is added annually. After a full 10 years, the amount in the account would be $13,000. Not very impressive.

But what if you put your money in an account that was less “simple”?

If you take the same $10,000 and grow it in an account for 10 years at a 3% rate of interest that compounds, you can see the difference beginning to show in the first few years:

  • Year 1: $10,000 + 300 = $10,300
  • Year 2: $10,300 + 309 = $10,609
  • Year 3: $10,609 + 318 = $10,927

At the end of 10 years, this type of account will have earned more than the simple interest account, without your having to do any extra work! And that’s not even considering adding regular contributions to the account over the years! Just imagine the possibilities if you can get a higher interest rate and combine that with a solid financial plan for your future.

One final thought: Simple isn’t always the way to go, and that can be a good thing.

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