Syed, Author at The Broke Professional

Is the Market Going to Crash Soon? Who Cares!!??

Update: Well that was a timely post.  Last week, the week of October 8 2018, saw the S&P 500 drop a little over 4%.  While not exactly bear market territory, the pundits are already out in force declaring the end of the bull market and to move your investments into “safe” stocks, such as ones that pay high dividends.  

If you’re investing for the long term, don’t do such a thing.  This past week could very well have been just a blip on the market and the rise could continue for 6 more months.  Or it very well could be the beginning of a bear market.  Either way, if you have a sound investment strategy that takes these ups and downs into account, just stay the course.  

But if the market volatility and decrease in your net worth is making you want to sell a bunch of your investment,s you might need to re-think your overall investment strategy.  Or just hold on for the ride!  

Read this post again.  You’ll thank me later.

This is going to be a quick public service announcement post.

Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of talk in the media about how the market crash is coming and we need to panic.  The cover of the latest issue of Fortune magazine had a guy with a sign saying “The End is Near”.

I know these types of story lines and images are made to sell ad space and make publishers lots of money.  But here are two indisputable truths when it comes to long term investing:

The stock market WILL go down.

Most people, especially the financial media, look at a stock market decline as an abnormal event that requires you to make some snap investment decisions.  The fact is, market declines are expected and should be assumed when you make your investment plan.  Here is a chart of the historical performance of the S&P 500:

The starting value of the S&P was 250 in 1930.  The most recent valuation had the index at 2800.  That’s more than a 1,000% return.  Not too shabby.  But as you can see in the chart, there were many dips along the way.  It was a very bumpy ride and will most likely continue to be bumpy.

Corrections and recessions are to be expected.  Investors should not be surprised when they occur.

Indisputable truth #2:

For long term investors, market drops SHOULD NOT change behavior.

When there is a market drop or recession, you will see the pundits talk about where to “shelter” your investments.  The safety of bonds will be talked and written about.  And you will see people panic and do very stupid things with their money.  Especially with their retirement accounts.

Market drops should be expected during your investment journey.  If you’re investing in a 401K or IRA which you can’t touch until age 60, there is no reason a recession should spook you when you’re age 40.  If anything, a market drop might compel you to increase your contributions since stocks will be cheaper.

As long as you make a sound investment plan that takes market drops into account, your retirement accounts should be able to weather any recessions, which last 2 years on average.  Stay the course and keep contributing to increase your shares.

No, the end is not near after all.

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Start Tracking Your Net Worth to Reach Financial Freedom

This post contains affiliate links

Everyone has heard the stat about the high failure rate of New Year’s resolutions:

8% of New Year’s resolutions fail

80% fail by February

Greater than 90% failure rate

So if you’ve made a New Year’s resolution for 2018, your chances of achieving it look grim.

The two most common New Year’s resolution goals are health and money.  Which means that there are a lot of failed financial New Year’s resolutions year after year.

My thought is that many people make very vague resolutions.  Goals like “I need to save more” and “We need to spend less on eating out” sound very nice in theory.  But are very hard to put into practice.

Along with being too vague, many resolutions fail because we don’t have an understanding of where we are.  It’s a cliched example, but you need a destination and a starting point in order to have accurate directions.

Making vague resolutions is like picking out a destination without knowing where the starting point is.  So you have no way of knowing if the direction you’re taking is going towards your goal or completely away from it.

You need to know where you stand financially before you can make an effective goal, let alone reach that goal.  I feel the best way to find your financial starting point is not by seeing how much you have in your checking or savings account.  It’s not the equity you have in your home.  And it’s definitely not how flashy your car is.

The best way is finding your net worth.  With the technology available today, calculating your net worth is very simple.  If this is the only financial resolution you make this year, you will be much better off than you were last year.

Why Net Worth Matters

The net worth calculation is very simple:

Assets-Liabilities=Net Worth

There is always discussion about what is considered a liability or an asset.  Some people consider home value an asset.  Some people don’t consider home value since it takes a lot of work to get money out of a home.  The details are endless.

But in general, as asset is something that adds to your wealth while a liability is something that takes away from it.  Common assets include your checking and savings accounts and retirement accounts.  Liabilities include credit card debt and student loans.

So net worth is basically a snapshot of your financial health.  But just like any snapshot, one picture doesn’t tell the story.

A new medical school graduate has little in savings and hundreds of thousands in student loan debt.  That will give him a large negative net worth.  A high school student probably has some spending money but very few liabilities since he lives with his parents.  So he would have a slightly positive net worth.

Does that mean the high school student is more wealthy than the new doctor?  The answer is no because net worth should be used to measure your financial GROWTH rather than a static number that looks at your wealth.  In 10 years time, the new doctor will likely have a net worth light years ahead of the high school kid.

So the key to wealth creation is to grow your net worth over time and grow it quickly.

My Net Worth Tracking Strategy

(Above is a screenshot of the sleek Personal Capital dashboard.  It gives you a quick glance at your net worth)

There are so many different opinions about how often you should track your net worth.  Some say every month (some people even track it every day!).  While others say once a year is enough.  The key is to find a pace you’re comfortable with and keep it consistent.

Personally, I check my net worth every quarter.  I actually enjoy checking up on my accounts and seeing how they’ve changed.  It also allow me to make sure there’s no fraud or any funny business going on in any of my accounts.

And doing it quarterly is enough time to see if new strategies I’ve implemented are actually making a difference.  Plus, most companies operate in quarterly statements so there must be some wisdom in it.

As far as what high tech tools I use, an Excel spreadsheet and a Word document are my weapons of choice.  I use the Excel document to help me calculate my net worth and I record the values over time in my Word document.  Easy peasy.

But one piece of technology that helps check my work and give me more insight into my net worth and retirement is Personal Capital.  I’ve been using it for years to view my net worth and they have been getting better over time.

All you need to do is connect your various accounts and Personal Capital will monitor them.  They can’t make any transactions so there is no need to worry about security.  They simply monitor your account value and have your net worth displayed nicely in graph form.

Which is great since net worth growth is the true measure of financial wellness.  Physically seeing it as a graph really drives it home.

Other cool features of Personal Capital are the Investment Checkup and Retirement Fee analyzer tools.  They can analyze the holdings in your investment accounts and tell you where you may be over or underweight.  And they will also check the fees in your accounts so you can make sure you’re not paying too much.

And it’s all free.  There is an option to talk to a real financial adviser for a fee but that’s completely up to you.  Most of the powerful features of the program are no cost.

Conclusion

Deciding to grow your net worth is the best thing you can do to turn your financial life around.  Thinking in terms of net worth rather than just making and spending more money will allow you to see your finances in a whole new way.

Suddenly, paying a huge monthly bill for that fancy luxury car when a regular old Toyota will do just fine doesn’t seem that enticing.  A decision like that can keep your net worth from growing the way you would like.  Thinking in terms of net worth rather than just focusing on your checking account is the real way to get wealthy.

Tracking your net worth consistently with Personal Capital is an excellent way to start the journey towards real wealth.

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3 Steps From a Negative Net Worth to a Millionaire

Disclaimer:  This post contains affiliate links.

If you finish any kind of professional or graduate school, you’re most likely going to be worth less than you did before you started.  (Worth less, but not worthless!)

Unless you have very wealthy and generous parents who can afford to cover your tuition payments of $50-60K per year, you will probably have a negative net worth coming out of school.  Mainly because you will have student loan debt and not much else.

Getting out of undergrad without student loan debt is doable.  You can get some scholarships, go to an in state school and work a full time job along with your studies.  But graduate schools have much fewer scholarships, higher tuition and a large workload that will prevent most people from working full time.

A typical optometry school graduate will have about $150,000 in debt and minimal savings.  That’s a net worth of -$150,000 right out of school.   You are worth less than you were when you were a baby.

But all is not lost.  With a few critical moves, especially early on in your career, you can reach a net worth of a million dollars in a reasonable amount of time.  Why a million dollars?  I don’t know it just sounds awesome to say you have a million dollars.

Now that you have that shiny new degree, you have the ability to make consistent money and dig yourself out of that hole.  With tuition rates soaring and some industries paying less now than in the past, it can seem like a daunting task to become a millionaire.

But it can be done in a few easy steps.  Just like a Tastee recipe video.

Step 1:  DON’T go on a spending spree out of the gate!

This step is the most critical but also the easiest to forget.  Going from a monthly income of almost nothing to thousands of dollars almost instantaneously can be exhilarating.  You want to do so many things like go out to fancy dinners, get that car you’ve had your eye on for a year and finally get away from living with roommates.

Reigning in your spending after you graduate is absolutely key.  If you get a new car and house and go on a fancy vacation right out of school, you are setting yourself up for financial failure.  You will be getting used to a lifestyle in which you have to spend a certain amount instead of investing and paying off your student loans.

It’s also important to consider that right out of school, you are used to living pretty lean.  So it shouldn’t be a huge adjustment to not live like a baller.  I’m not saying don’t spend any of your newfound money.  Just don’t spend ALL of it.

You can give yourself a luxurious 20% pay raise from your student life and put the rest towards your student loans or investments.  If you do this for just a few years out of school, you will have built the financial muscles that will allow you to become a millionaire very quickly.

For doctors that finished school a few decades ago, this step probably wasn’t all that critical.  Student loan debt was manageable and you could afford to indulge in a few things out of school.  Getting a new luxury car right out of school was not a huge deal.

But times are different.  And unless you change you will become a paycheck to paycheck doctor.

Step 2:  Get your student loans in order.  And start getting rid of them.

I’ve written a lot about student loans and will continue to write about them as long as they continue to be a big problem for new graduates.  It can seem very overwhelming to see a 6 figure debt right out of school.  But the only way to get rid of it is to get your ducks in a row, find a strategy to attack them and just keep at it.

The first thing you want to do is refinance all of your private high rate student loans.  You probably have a decent credit score coming out of school (find out why here), so you should be able to get a better rate.

Click here to get refinance quotes with Credible.  If you end up getting approved by them, you will receive a $200 bonus.

Then you need to figure out if you need to refinance your federal loans as well.  Unless you’re aiming for public service loan forgiveness, you should probably refinance and get a lower interest rate.

After all this work refinancing your loans and getting great interest rates, you have actually done nothing to your debt.  Now comes the hard part: making the payments.  Decide when you want to be debt free.  I think 10 years is a reasonable amount of time since you also need to invest your money and let compounding interest do its thing.  But the bottom line is that making large and consistent payments is the only sure way to pay off student loans.  Refinancing and consolidating may sound nice, but debt payoff is the name of the game.

Some people hate debt and will want to be debt free in 5 years.  More power to you.  The key is to be aggressive and make consistently high payments.  This will also mean you probably will have to postpone that around the world vacation or the new house until you’re debt free.  So be it.  The longer debt has a hold on you the more it will squeeze out of your finances.  Getting rid of it sooner is almost always better.

Step 3:  Invest early and often.

One benefit of making a high income from a professional position such as a doctor or lawyer is that you can use your money to enjoy a very comfortable life.  But once you stop working, the money stops coming in.  And trouble will soon follow.  That’s why investing is important.  It allows you to make money work for you when you can’t, or have no desire, to work anymore

The other benefit of making a high professional income?  Being able to invest more than the average person.  This is important since most professionals don’t start working until a few years after the general population.  We’re already behind the curve when it comes to starting to invest so it’s extremely important to invest early in your career in order to let compound interest do its thing.

And please do not underestimate the effect of compounding interest.  The earlier you invest, the quicker your money will grow and the quicker you can retire.  Or make an around the world trip  Or whatever it is you want.  Investing gives you that choice.

Investing comes in many forms.  It can be buying mutual funds within an employer sponsored retirement account.  Or a Traditional or Roth IRA you open on your own and pick some stocks.  Or it can be in the form of rental properties that you buy and hold.  There are many options, so just pick the ones that interest you and pour your heart, soul and money into them.  Allow that money to grow so you’ll be able to handle anything life throws your way.  Or simply retire at age 50 if you feel like it.

Conclusion

So that’s really all it takes.  Live like a slightly richer student, start attacking your student loans and begin your investing career as early as possible.  It just comes down to these three steps.  Now there are nuances and details within these steps you will need to figure out on your own.

Things such as how much should you allocate to student loan payments and how much to investing?  How much house can you really afford?  When is a good time to have kids?  What is your risk tolerance when it comes to investing?

There is no one size fits all answer to these important questions.  But as long as you get the big things right, you can figure out the details along the way.

And then check your bank accounts to find you’re a millionaire!

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Don’t Fall for the Minimum Payment Scam

Don’t get trapped!

I’ve written a lot about credit cards and their many advantages.  Things like earning rewards, extended warranties, travel benefits and fraud protection just to name a few.  I wrote a post very recently about how credit cards are so much better than debit cards.

But credit cards can also be death to your finances.  If you don’t pay on time and in full, you will be subject to late fees and interest.  A LOT of interest.  Credit card interest rates are easily in the double digits.  And some cards can be in the 20% range.  There is no reason anyone should be paying this much interest.

And consumers know this.  Most adults know that not paying your credit card in full will lead to interest being charged to your balance.  Knowledge isn’t the problem.

The problem is that the credit card companies have made it palatable for consumers to carry a balance and be charged interest along the way.  The way they do this is by offering the “minimum payment.”

And it’s a complete scam that is designed to take money from consumers and turn it directly into profits for the credit card companies.

‘Til Debt Do Us Part

Here is a screenshot from one of my recent credit card bills:

Every credit card statement includes a message like this.  They are literally telling us that making the minimum is bad for our finances and showing us how bad it is.  In this case, the minimum payment was $25.  That’s such a reasonable amount why wouldn’t I take the credit card company up on this offer?

Because the interest rate on this card happens to be 15%, and it would take me 2 years to get out of debt.  And most people have multiple credit cards asking for a minimum payment.  And all of this assumes that you will never spend another cent on your card (which is why it’s called revolving debt by the way.  Debt is being paid off while new debt is being created).

So even with this warning from the credit card company itself, why do so many people just default to just paying the minimums on their cards?  Because it’s just easier.

We live in a monthly payment type of society.  And it just seems a lot cleaner to add your credit card minimum payment to your pile of monthly obligations.  Put it on auto pay along with the car loan, student loan and mortgage.  Just set it and forget it right?  But in this case, forgetting about all of that interest building up in the background will destroy your finances.

Credit Card Debt is an Emergency

There is no such thing as a free meal.  If you get a “free” meal, you will most likely be on the receiving end of a sales pitch.  Just eat, smile, nod and be on your way.

Paying off credit card debt is the closest thing to a financial free meal you can get.  Getting into credit card debt and paying 20% in interest month after month is not ideal.  A situation like that, which many families find themselves in unfortunately, will keep you in financial prison forever.

But once you realize this and commit yourself to getting rid of that debt, no other financial decision matters.  As high as credit card interest rates are, there is no investment out there that would justify you not getting rid of that debt as fast as possible.

If you’re paying 20% interest on a credit card, getting rid of that debt will be the equivalent of getting a 20% return on your money!  While avoiding the debt is a much better first step, paying it off ASAP is the next best thing.

That’s why I consider credit card debt an absolute emergency!  All discretionary spending such as new cars, vacations and fancy dinners out should be put on hold until the debt is gone.  It’s much easier said than done but it’s the only way you’re going to get out of financial hell.

The worst part is that credit card companies don’t want you to feel this.  They want you to feel comfortable shelling out 20% more money than you should each month.  The goal is for credit card debt to become the “new normal”.

But you know better than that.  Take care of credit card debt first and then focus on your other goals.  That’s the closest thing to a financial free lunch you will get.

Enrich Yourself, not Visa

Banks make a TON of money off of credit cards.  That’s why we will keep getting bombarded with credit card offers for as long as we live.

It’s actually pretty absurd.  Banks are simply offering a 30 day loan and charging an exorbitant amount of interest for it.  At least with an auto loan you can enjoy your car and get some use out of it.  But with credit card debt there is no collateral that you can really make use of.  Those fancy dinners out are just a memory at that point.

So don’t fall for the minimum payment scam.  There is no use for it except to keep consumers in debt for their entire life.  It’s all very sinister if you really think about it.  People become depressed and even commit suicide because of debt.  But as long as banks continue to profit off of credit cards, they couldn’t care less.

Free yourself and pay off your debt in full!

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How to Raise Your Credit Score FAST

Ride some coattails to a higher credit score!

Living off the grid sounds great.  You don’t have to field calls from telemarketers or keep up on with the latest Trump headline.  As long as you find a way to take care of hygiene once in a while, life will be good.

For those of us not looking to live in the wilderness with our family, a credit score becomes very important.  To get a house, car or education, you will need a loan at some point.  In order to get a loan, and then get a great interest rate on the loan, you will need a great credit score.

Many writers, including myself, have written about how to increase your credit score.  FICO, the people who assign your credit score, even have a nice graph that shows what factors affect your score the most.

As long as you make your payments on time and keep your credit utilization low, you should be good.

It can take years to build up a great score.  But what if you want to increase your score quickly?  And with almost no work needed?

There is a way to do just that by using a little feature all credit card issuers offer.  Enter the authorized user.

Authorized User Pros

Almost all credit card companies allow you to assign an authorized user (AU) to your account.  The primary card holder will sign them up, and it can be usually done online by entering some information about the AU.

Once the AU is approved, they get their own card with their name on it.  But all charges need to be paid by the primary card holder.  If the AU goes on a spending spree, the burden will still fall on the primary card holder.  So be very careful who you choose.

The AU does get a number of benefits:

1.  Credit score boost!  This is arguably the biggest benefit of being an AU.  If someone is young with no credit history or has a low credit score due to some past mistakes, becoming an AU can be a good option if the primary card holder has a great credit score.  Being an AU will put the primary card holders info on the AU’s credit report.

While nothing is guaranteed in the credit score boosting arena, if the primary card holder has a great score and a stellar credit history, the AU will almost always see a boost in their own credit score.  This can especially be helpful if one spouse has a great credit score and the other needs to build some credit.  Just add the spouse as an AU and watch their score skyrocket.

2.  Using a great credit card they would have otherwise not have been approved for.  Many people either have no credit or a low credit score.  This means they will likely not be approved for any of the awesome reward cards on the market.  Even though the primary card holder technically gets the rewards, if a family member is an AU it’s more points for everybody!

Having access to a great card such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred or American Express Platinum card has many additional benefits such as primary rental car insurance and travel benefits.  And with the associated credit boost that comes with being an AU, they might be able to get that great credit card on their ownat some point!

3.  Responsibility.  With a safety net.  A credit card is like a machete.  It is a tool that can be used to your benefit.  You can track all of your expenses in one place.  And you can earn some great rewards depending on what type of card you have.  Responsible credit card use has many benefits.

But it is also a tool that can harm you if not wielded properly.  Late payments and carrying a balance will dig you a financial hole real fast.  Double digit interest rates will quickly erase any gains from investments you may have.  And it’s really easy to get into credit card debt if you’re not careful.

Being an AU eliminates the risk of you getting into trouble with a credit card.  But only because the responsibility is on the primary card holder!  Hopefully, they are savvy enough to be able to erase your mistake and counsel the AU on not making them again.  This is a rare free pass in the financial world.

So the risk falls squarely on the primary card holder.  The AU is in the clear.  But if they’re not careful, the primary holder just has to make a call and tell the company to drop the AU.  So the risk is there, but can be minimized in an instant.

Big Upside with Little Risk

Adding an AU is an easy process that can be potentially beneficial for the AU.  It can provide a nice credit score boost if the primary card holder has a great score.  And the AU will get the benefits of using a credit card with potential rewards.

The risk falls on the primary card holder.  If the AU has a spending problem, the primary holder has to foot the bill.  Luckily, they can also cancel the AU in an instant.  So the risk is relatively small.

So to summarize, you CAN increase your credit score pretty quickly if you become an AU with someone that has a great score.  A lot will still depend on your own credit activity, but if you make it a point to pay your bills on time and not over utilize your credit, signing up as an AU can provide a nice credit score boost.

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Credit Cards vs Debit Cards: Not Even Close

Poor debit. He never stood a chance.

We don’t use cash much in this country.  Most online and in person transactions are done by credit or debit card.  Even with things like Apple and Samsung Pay, a card is still the thing making the transaction.

But is credit or debit the better option?  Do people even know why they use a credit card or debit card?  This post will answer both of these burning questions.

So in honor of the great (and overrated?) Floyd Mayweather retiring this year, here is the round by round breakdown of the matchup between credit cards vs debit cards:

Round 1: Credit Score

Unless you live off the grid, having a great credit score will give you lots of advantages.  You’ll be able to be approved for the best reward credit cards.  You will most likely get approved for and be offered the best rate on loans, including car loans and mortgages.  And achieving a high credit score isn’t too complicated.

People with high credit scores are just more trustworthy in the eyes of lenders.  And responsible credit card use will help you get a high credit score much easier than a debit card would.

The companies that track your credit history don’t care how much you use your debit card.  They want to know how many credit cards you have and if you pay them back on time.  And the more responsible you are with your credit, the more credit banks will be willing to lend you, which increases your credit score even more!

But you can’t get all of those credit boosting benefits if you use your debit card.  Start small by using one credit card and paying it off in full every month.

Winner: Credit cards.  Debit was just being toyed with in the first round.

Round 2: Rewards

Now the fun begins.  I think there should be some incentive in choosing to use a card for payment instead of cash.  And credit cards provide that incentive in the form of credit card rewards.

It’s no secret that I enjoy chasing credit card sign up bonuses.  They are an easy way to get some cash back or travel points for spending money on the things will buy anyway.  Even if you don’t chase sign up bonuses, many reward cards will give you 1-2% cash back on every single purchase.  Why would you not take advantage of that?

Not every credit card comes with rewards.  But it’s easy to find many that do.  Debit cards?  Hardly any give you rewards.  And the debit cards that do have rewards offer very minimal incentives.

Whether it’s chasing sign up bonuses or just getting some incentives for every purchase you make, credit cards are superior over debit in every way.

Winner:  Credit cards by a landslide.  I don’t think debit even landed a single punch.

Round 3: Fees and Interest

Here’s where things can get a little dicey for credit card users (but only if your’e not careful!).  When you swipe a debit card, that money comes straight from your checking account.  So there’s no need to worry about paying off a balance on time or accruing interest.  Unless you love overdrafting your account, you will never spend money that you don’t have or incur any fees with a debit card.

Credit cards are not so nice to people.  If you are late with a payment you will get hit with a fee.  If you don’t pay your balance off in full, you will be charged ungodly amounts of interest.  And if you do things like this consistently, you will make the bank very rich while making yourself very poor.

So the biggest things to keep in mind for credit card users is to always pay on time and in full.  Any rewards from credit cards will quickly be negated by fees and interest.  And many cards charge an annual fee, even if you don’t use the card!

So if you know you are the type of person that will not pay in full, then stick with debit.  While you will have a boring life, you will avoid getting into credit card debt, which has ruined many people’s lives.  Just don’t overdraft your account.  Those fees are pretty egregious.

Winner:  Debit by a hair.  I think credit was feeling bad so they let them get a round.

Round 4: Liability and Disputes

I have a feeling this is the knock out round.  Like I said before, there should be some incentive to using a card instead of cash.  And while credit cards can offer nice rewards, another great incentive is liability protection and disputing transactions.

If someone steals your card or gets the number somehow, most likely they will try to run up some purchases as quickly as they can.  This happened to me a couple of times.  I’ll see an unusual purchase or get a text about one, and then contact the card company.  What they usually do is just send you a new card with a new account number and give you an immediate credit for those fraudulent purchases.  Pretty easy.

Debit cards are not so easy.  Since you can bypass the PIN feature for debit cards at most stores, it’s easy enough for someone to steal your card and use it anywhere.  The problem is, the money they spend is siphoned directly from your checking account! Which means you run the risk of losing all of your liquid funds in an instant.

And while you will most likely get your money back, the process is longer with debit cards and you will be left to deal with a depleted bank account for a few weeks.  There is just so much more liability protection with credit cards it’s not even funny.

Another nice feature with credit cards is the ability to dispute transactions.  If you bought something by accident or are not happy with your purchase, you can dispute it and your card issuer will usually just give you a credit for it while hashing things out with the company.  They are fighting for you right after they get your money back.  With debit cards, it’s much tougher to dispute a purchase and even if you do, it takes longer as well.

Winner:  Credit cards.  Debits corner had to throw in the towel to save him.

Winner by KO:  Credit Cards!

Having financial awareness, especially of why you use credit cards instead of debit, is the key to financial success.  There are just so many inherent advantages to credit that it’s almost a no-brainer in an optimal financial plan.

So take some time to find the right credit card for your needs, make sure to pay the balance on time and in full, and enjoy the benefits for years to come.

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How to Stack Bank Account Bonuses

The result of chasing bank account bonuses.

Banks know how to make money off of regular people.  They get some money every time you swipe a credit card and a lot more money from interest payments.

They get money from ATM fees and from being able to lend out money that we deposit with them at high interest rates.  And many banks also pay out really crappy interest rates to consumers.  So it’s a win-win-win all around for them.

But there is a way we can make some money off the banks.  One way is chasing credit card rewards.  I’ve previously written here and here about the strategies you can use to get credit card rewards.  As long as you don’t spend more than you need and never carry a balance, you can make out pretty well.

Banks also like to give out rewards when you sign up for checking and savings accounts.  Many of them will give a cash bonus if you direct deposit a certain amount or use their debit card a certain number of times.

Just like with credit card rewards, you need to pick the best offers and be pretty organized so you don’t make any mistakes.  Personally, I’ve been able to get close to $1,000 in checking account rewards this year with a little online legwork.  But there are people that get $5,000 or more.

Here are the important things to remember when trying to maximize rewards from bank accounts:

1.  Find the best offers

Most banks offer some type of incentive to sign up for their accounts.  But many offers are not worth the time to chase.  I’ve seen offers as little as $20 to sign up for a checking account at a local credit union.  These types of offers are not worth the time.  Good bonuses will have offers from $100-$500 depending on the amount of hoops to jump through.

My favorite place to look at bank offers is Doctor of Credit.  They have it nicely organized by nationwide offers and state specific offers.  And they’re constantly updating so you can usually find all you need there.  It’s my one stop shop for bank account offers.

2.  Get Organized

Being organized is important in the credit card rewards game.  But it’s even more important in the bank account bonus game.  Many of these offers can have multiple requirements such as direct deposit and debit card swipes.  And you usually have to do them in a certain amount of time.  If you have to keep the account open for a few months, you also have to make sure you don’t get hit with any minimum balance fees.  That;s a lot of stuff to keep track of.

So keep a list of the requirements and date you have to complete them by.  It’s also a good idea to note down the username and password you used to sign up for the account.  Since banks have different password requirements, it can be tough to keep track of them even if you’re using the same password.  Which you probably shouldn’t be.

Make things easy on yourself and keep records of everything.

3.  Early Account Closure Fees

This is a fee that some banks charge if you close an account too soon after opening.  They’re obviously trying to discourage people from opening accounts for the bonus and then closing them, which is what we’re trying to do.

Most early closure fees I’ve seen are assessed 90-180 days after account opening.  If you close the account too early, the bank will take the bonus back.

Simply note the time period in your spreadsheet or list and make sure not to close it before then.  Losing a bonus you earned because you forgot to take the early closure fee into account does not sound like fun.

4.  Electronic Direct Deposit

One thing that can make getting bank account bonuses a lot easier is unfortunately out of your control.  And that is how you change your direct deposit information.

Since most of these bonuses require you to direct deposit a certain amount of money in a certain time frame, being able to edit that online makes the process a lot easier.  However, many employers are stuck in the 20th century and still require you to update direct deposit information by paper.  This could be a major hassle especially if you’re trying to get multiple bank bonuses.

Not being able to edit direct deposit info electronically won’t disqualify for trying for bank bonuses.  But it will increase the hassle factor so it’s something to keep in mind.

5.  Rewards are taxable

Credit card sign up bonuses are great because they’re pretty simple to get and the rewards can be substantial.  Best yet, the rewards are not taxable!  So if you get a sign up bonus of $200 on a credit card, that’s $200 free and clear.  Uncle Sam does not ask for his share.

Bank account bonuses don’t work like this unfortunately.  Bank bonuses usually fall under the “interest payments” category so you will get a tax form to file with the IRS.  So that $200 is more like $150 after taxes, depending on your tax bracket of course.

One way I like to work around this is to deposit any bank account bonuses into our Traditional IRA.  Any deposits will be deducted from our taxes, so it’s kind of a tax free reward I guess.

Conclusion

Credit card rewards can be lucrative and fun to accumulate, but bank account bonuses are something to look into as well.  Even though bank account rewards are usually taxable, some of them are easy to get and if you’re organized, you can make out pretty well.

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How Many Credit Cards Should You Have?

 

Credit cards are one financial topic that everyone has an opinion about.  Even people who don’t have much interest in finance will have some sort of take on credit cards.

Some people swear by them.  Other people swear AT them.  Some people use them for every transaction.  While others have never used one in their lives.

Credit cards are an ever present force in our society.  You can’t go on an airplane nowadays without being asked to sign up for the latest and greatest credit card.  Commercials, magazine ads and internet ads with credit card offers inundate us regularly.

And let’s not forget good old snail mail.  Everyone’s mailbox will eventually receive an offer for the latest sign up or balance transfer offer.  It’s inevitable.

I’ve written before about the utility of credit cards.  They are a tool, and just like any tool they can help you or hurt you depending on your use.

Almost all of us have credit cards.  The question is, how many should we have?  Can you have too many?  Or even too few?  Let’s take a look at the factors that will decide how many cards you should have.

1.  Life Experience

Right now, I have 36 credit cards open.  To most people, that may seem like a lot.  But believe it or not, to others that does not seem like that much.  You’ll find out later why that number is just right for me.

I got my first credit card at age 19.  It was a gas station credit card that gave a whopping 2% cash back at BP gas stations.  I didn’t know much about personal finance (or life) at 19, so I thought that card was all I needed.

I would not have been able to handle more than one card at that time, let alone 30+.  I just didn’t know enough about how life worked to be able to handle more.  So life experience is definitely a key ingredient for being able to handle many credit cards.

2.  *****Paying off your balance in full******

Notice the asterisks.  This is THE KEY factor that will determine if you can handle many credit cards, or none at all.  Being able to use credit cards is not a right but a privilege.  And the privilege comes from NOT being the type of person that gets into credit card debt.

Credit card debt is expensive.  It’s one of the most expensive type of debts out there short of owing a loan shark.  And most of Americans have it.

I won’t go all Dave Ramsey on you and say no one should have credit cards.  But if you routinely do not pay off your balances in full, you should not have a credit card.  Period.

Credit card interest rates are insane.  Cards on the “low end” will be about 8%, while many cards can easily approach 30%.  No one should be carrying this type of debt.  So if you carry any type of credit card debt, unless it’s a 0% promotional offer, you need to pay that off ASAP.

And don’t make it worse by racking up more credit card debt.

3.  Credit Score

When it comes to having credit cards, your credit score is a key factor.  If you want to be approved for many credit cards, you need to have a high credit score and a credit history clear of any delinquent activity.  A long history of on time payments helps too.

And contrary to popular belief, having lots of credit cards DOES NOT lower your credit score.  While opening up some new credit will temporarily lower your score by a few points, it will not hurt it in any appreciable way.

The most important factors in one’s credit score are on time payments and credit utilization ratio (this is straight from the people at FICO).  Having many credit cards helps BOTH of these categories.

Having lots of on time payments will help your credit score.  And having lots of cards, but not using most of them, will keep your credit utilization percentage very low.

My credit score has skyrocketed ever since I started applying for credit cards.  And that’s because I always try to pay on time and only use the cards when I need them.

4.  Rewards Chasing

This is the only, and most lucrative, reason anyone should have many credit cards.  As you can tell by just checking your mail once in a while, credit cards love offering sign up bonuses.  Those offers that say something like “Spend $2,000 in 3 months and get 10,000 points”.

These offers are real money makers for credit card companies.  While they are giving up a little in terms of points or cash back, they get that back and then some with swipe fees and interest payments.  And many people don’t even redeem their reward points anyway.  The credit card companies have everything to gain.

But if you’re disciplined enough not to overspend and always pay off your balance in full, the consumer stands to gain a little as well.  There are many really bad sign up offers.  But there are some great ones as well.  The key is to find the great ones, do just enough to meet the sign up offer, and then store the credit card away if it’s not useful for you. (Frequent Miler is my go to resource for this).

Using this method, I’ve been able to take my family on many flights and hotels for almost nothing.  I’ve also gotten a good amount of cash back rewards (which are tax free!).  So reward chasing has definitely been worth it.

But it’s only worth it if you maintain your great credit score and never carry a balance.  Interest rates on rewards credit cards are notoriously high.  If you end up carrying a balance on a rewards card, it will quickly negate any sort of rewards you earn.

5.  Organization

The last important thing you need in order to be able to handle many credit cards is being organized.  This is especially important for rewards cards since they can have annual fees that can be avoided if you close them on time.

A simple spreadsheet will do just fine.  I use one that has the date I applied for the card, the sign up bonus requirements, any annual fees and when I closed the card.  Trying to do all of this in your head will eventually lead to a mistake.

And you need a central place for all of your credit cards.  I currently store them in an old checkbook box.  But I think I may need to upgrade to a shoebox.  Or you can just have a drawer with all of your unused cards.  Just keep them all in one place away from your kids.

So how many cards SHOULD you have?

It depends.  I know, I hate that answer just as much as everybody else.  But it’s true.  There are some people that have no business having more than one card.  Or any cards at all.  People who regularly carry balances fall under this category.

And then there are others who can seamlessly handle 50 cards at any time.  It takes a good understanding of your personal financial system and a lot of organization.

Plus, it has to be worth your while.  And chasing the best of the best rewards can definitely be worth it.  So if you don’t feel you can handle many credit cards, no need to despair.  Just do what you’re comfortable with at the moment but make it a point to learn about the credit card industry and how you can use it to help your finances.

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My Favorite Student Loan Calculator

This is going to be a short post, but it should help a lot of people.

Since I’m a finance nerd and think about debt payoff and investing a lot, financial calculators take up a lot of my time.  While there are a lot of good investing calculators out there, I could never find a nice debt payoff calculator.  Here’s what I look for in a good debt calculator:

-The ability to enter multiple loans with different interest rates.  This is really helpful for people with student loans.  Sadly, most calculators don’t even have this seemingly basic feature.

-A graphic representation of my current loans and when they will be paid off.

-The ability to see the effect of increasing or decreasing your extra loan payment on your loan payoff date.

Ready For Zero had a program that did exactly this, and it was great!  I used it for a few years until they suddenly stopped offering it this year.  Huge bummer.

I searched futilely for a similar calculator with no luck.  Recently, I tried to search for a calculator again and an old friend resurfaced…

Unbury.me

I wrote about unbury.me a few years back because the calculator had everything I wanted.  It even showed how much more time and money you’d save by using a debt avalanche instead of a snowball!  It was a very no frills and basic looking calculator but it got the job done.

Like Ready For Zero, it mysteriously disappeared.  But now it’s back with a nice updated look.  Here is a look at the home page:

Everything I want is right there on the home page looking all simple and clean.  From here you can add as many loans as you want and enter the balance, interest rate and monthly payment.  And you can select if you want to pay them off using the avalanche (highest interest loan first) or snowball (lowest balance loan first) method.

Once you enter your information, you’ll be redirected to a cool dashboard with a lot of nice colorful looking graphs.  It’s a nice little control center that gives you a ton of good information.

But the best part is the top of the dashboard which looks like this:

All the information I need in a nice little toolbar.  I love being able to see the exact month my loans will be gone (less than 2 years!)

There are a lot of other cool graphs and numbers to play with.  Number junkies like myself will spend a lot of time on this site.

Having a good student loan calculator like this can be a very motivating factor in paying off your loans quickly.  It’s great seeing the exact month you will be debt free and the powerful effect of paying more on your highest interest loan.

I recommend setting aside a nice half hour to enter all of your student loans and looking at all the nice graphs they have on here.  Another feature is that you can create a profile and save all of your info.  Saves having to re-enter all of your loans again.  Unbury.me is simply an awesome student loan calculator.  Enjoy!

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Pay Off Debt With a Strategy

Debt is a way of life in America.  It’s easy to acquire and everyone has got it.  The vast majority of people buy homes and cars with debt.  It’s almost impossible to go to college with no student loan debt, especially for any type of graduate or professional school.

People are comfortable with debt, even high interest credit card debt.  And that is a problem.  But that’s for another post.

The problem I want to discuss in this post is how people pay off debt.  And the big problem is that many people, even high income professionals, have no debt payoff strategy.  They usually pay the minimum and then maybe (or maybe not) throw some extra money once in a while at the debt.

This is very inefficient since there are certain types of debt that should be paid off first and there are certain debts that are actually okay to have around.  Some debts should take priority in being paid off over others.

Having a clear debt payoff strategy will allow you to get out of debt faster and, most importantly, minimize the stress associated with having debt.  A debt payoff strategy will allow you to know how much you will end up paying in interest payments and how long you will be paying the debt off.

Here are three debt strategies to consider:

Strategy #1:  Pay the minimum and pray

This seems to be the strategy favored by most Americans.  Safe to say I don’t recommend it.

It can be soul crushing to just get by paying the minimum payment while knowing there are decades of debt in your future.  Probably why most people just try to forget their debt even though it’s eroding their wealth.

Let’s just move on to the next method.

Strategy#2:  Snowball method

The snowball method was popularized by Dave Ramsey and is perpetuated by his rabid followers.  I don’t agree with a lot of things Dave says (such as not having credit cards), but the snowball method is one of the good things he’s put forward.

(Quick tangent:  I’m not a big fan of these finance “icons” or “gurus” like Dave Ramsey or Suze Orman.  The reason is that they are not genuine.  They did not get wealthy by doing what they tell their followers.  Things like “save up a $1,000 emergency fund” and “get your 401k match!” is good advice, but it’s not how Dave Ramsey got rich.

He got rich by putting all of his energy into growing his business.  He got rich by selling products and building his empire, not by creating an emergency fund.  And I’m pretty certain he laughs at the idea of an emergency fund.  Same goes for Suze and any other larger than life finance guru.

They’re business people and they got wealthy by focusing on that.  I would respect these guys a lot more if they were sincere in helping people.  But all they do is create books and courses for the “working man” that have the same old advice in a shiny new package.  Rant over.)

I’m on to you Dave…

The snowball method is simply making a list of your debts by balance, and focusing on paying off the one with the lowest balance.  Obviously, you make the minimum payment on the rest of the loans to keep them current and avoid late fees.

But then you throw everything you can at the loan with the lowest balance.  When that is paid off, you roll (like a snowball!) the minimum payment of the paid off loan into the loan with the next lowest balance.  And proceed to obliterate it with all you have.

I used to dismiss the snowball method because technically it’s not the mathematically best way to get out of debt.  But money is so much about psychology that having a system like this that propels you forward is much better than being discouraged by debt and not having a strategy at all.

Seeing those low balance debts disappear does have a positive effect on your psyche and will keep you in the fight.  For debt payoff novices especially, I would recommend the snowball method.  Just put your head down and plug away at the lowest balance debt and move on to the next.

Strategy#3:  Avalanche method

The absolute mathematically quickest way to get out of debt is the Avalanche method.  It’s the method I use and it has saved me tons in interest.  I’m not sure who coined the term, but I like the idea of an avalanche destroying my debt as opposed to a snowball.

With the Avalanche method, you list your debts in order from highest interest rate to lowest.  Every month you would pay the minimum on all your debts, and focus on eliminating the debt with the highest interest rate.  Then you turn that minimum payment around into the debt with the next highest interest rate.

This is the quickest way to get out of debt.  There’s no argument about that.  But it does require some more upfront work with no apparent payoff in the form of more money.  But once you eliminate the first few higher interest debts, the rest will be engulfed in the avalanche in no time.

The best method

Too many people are in denial about their debt.  I see this a lot regarding student loans.  Doctors and lawyers usually have very high student loan debt.  We’re talking six figures easily.  This kind of debt can seem crushing and it would be easy to turn a blind eye and just make the minimum payment month after month.

That’s a surefire way to pay the most interest possible over your lifetime.  Having a debt payoff plan at all would be great progress for a lot of people.  So using either the snowball or avalanche method is fine by me.  But I think the best way to pay off the debt would be a hybrid version of the two.

How this would work is focus on paying off the first couple of low balance debts to get some progress under your belt.  Once you do that, shift your focus to your highest interest debt to really attack that total balance.  So start with the snowball and switch to the avalanche.  It’ll feel much better to be out of debt in a few years rather than a few decades!

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