Credit cards Archives - The Broke Professional

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 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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How to Kill your Credit Score

Your credit score is one of the most overlooked parts of personal finance.  Most people don’t know what their credit score is, why it’s important, what contributes to your score and how you can improve it.  I will go into all of that and more.  If you take away only one thing from this discussion, it should be that improving your credit score is a sure fire way for you to save THOUSANDS of dollars across a lifetime.  This is because if you have a great credit score, you will get the best interest rates on mortgage and car loans.  Getting the best rate can save you tens of thousands of dollars on your mortgage alone.

Credit Score basics

Your credit score is a number between 300-850 that lenders use to determine if you are a risky borrower or not.  Generally speaking, the lower your credit score, the more risky you look to lenders.  Which means they will offer you the higher end of their interest rates.  The opposite holds true for those with high credit scores.  This means you will get a great rate for your mortgage, car loan and be accepted for all of the awesome credit cards available.

What goes into your credit score?  Let’s go straight to the source:  The Fair Isaac Corporation (FICO).  Your credit score is also called your FICO score, so it pays to listen to what they tell you.  Here is a nice little pie chart that lays it all out there for you:

Creditsesame

Looking at the chart, it’s easy to see what makes up the majority of your score: payment history, amounts owed and length of credit history.  So as long as you make your payments on time, don’t go near your credit limit on your cards and do that for a few years, your credit score will most likely be excellent.

Conversely, there are a few things that can absolutely KILL your credit score.  And it’s a lot easier and faster to lower your score than it is to increase it.  Making late payments is the #1 surefire way to kill your credit score.  Looking at the chart makes that obvious, but it also makes perfect sense from a lender’s point of view.

If you’re shopping for a home loan, the lenders will look at your credit score.  If your score is low, it tells them you probably don’t pay your bills on time.  While this may or may not be a fair judgement based on one number, a low credit score will nonetheless discourage them from offering you their lowest interest rates.

And late or missed payments can include anything:  Credit card bills, past mortgage payments, rent, car payments, cell phone bills, utility bills and student loan payments.  All of this stuff gets reported to the credit bureaus, so staying on top of your payments is vitally important.

Do Business Online

What’s the best way to make all of your payments on time?  Do everything online.  This makes things really easy as you can just bookmark all of your monthly bills and pay them right online.  Many also allow automatic payments, which pretty much guarantees on time payments.  Use technology to your advantage when it comes to your credit score.  Your future self will thank you.

Another way to hurt your credit score?  Getting really close to your credit limit.  This usually refers to credit cards, and it specifically refers to your credit utilization ratio.

If you have a $20,000 credit limit across all of your cards, and are consistently charging $19,999 every statement period, this shows lenders that you’re using too much credit.  You are a risky borrower in their eyes.  There are two ways to fix this.  The obvious one is don’t spend up to your credit limit!  Either switch to cash for some payments or go through your spending history and cut out the unnecessary stuff.

Another way is to request a credit limit increase.  Just call the number on the back of your credit cards and ask if you can get your limit increased.  Some will do it and some won’t.  But any increase in your credit availability will help your ratio.  Increasing your credit limits and decreasing your spending at the same time would be the ideal way to go.

Conclusion

According to the FICO pie chart, new credit and types of credit used also contribute to your score.  This is only 20% of your score, so it’s not really worth focusing a lot of your time on, especially if you have problems with late payments.  Opening a lot of lines of credit will temporarily decrease your score a few points, but it will go back up once they realize you’re still making your payments on time.  Focusing on late payments and high credit utilization ratios, the two credit score killers, is the quickest and most important way to improve your score.

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Why Doctors Tend to Have High Credit Scores

(Hey everyone.  The following is a guest post from my friend Ryan, who specializes in financial planning for physicians.  He’s doing great work since many physicians and other health professionals are clueless when it comes to their finances.  In this post Ryan talks about a unique aspect of doctor’s credit scores.  Enjoy!)

As a financial planner who specializes in working with doctors and their families, I’ve realized over time that many doctors do have high credit scores. Having a high credit score enables doctors to get competitive interest rates on mortgages, car loans, and more. It also shows lenders that they’re not only accomplished physicians but responsible borrowers who pay their bills on time.

I’ll expand more why doctors typically have high credit scores by outlining how a credit score is actually calculated. That way, if you’re a doctor who wants to raise your credit score in anticipation of a big purchase, you’ll know the steps to take to increase your score to get the best opportunities available to you.

Here are some of the reasons why physicians typically have high credit scores:

1.  Length of Credit History

The length of your credit history definitely factors into your score. For many doctors, taking out student loans is the first step in establishing a credit history. If you start taking out loans as an undergraduate, you’ll have at least 7-8 years of credit history by the time you finish residency.

If you didn’t take out student loans as an undergraduate but you did as a graduate student or medical school student, you’ll still have a few years of credit history under your belt. This helps to improve your score.

2.  Payment History

Your payment history is probably the most important aspect of your credit score because it makes up a whopping 35% of your score. This is the part of your score that shows lenders you’re a worthy investment and that you’ll pay them back on time.

The great news is that once you take out student loans, you’ve started a credit file. Even if your student loans aren’t due yet, your account is in good standing month after month while you’re in school. Lenders love to see this.

If you have credit cards in addition to your student loans, be sure to pay these on time as well. Even if your student loan accounts are in good standing, missing a credit card payment will be detrimental to your score. So, make those payments on time every time solely because your payment history factors so heavily into your overall credit score.

3.  Debt Utilization

 Having a low debt utilization percentage is a fancy way of saying that you’re living within your means. Your debt utilization percentage is how much debt you have relative to the amount of credit available to you. So, if you have 5 maxed out credit cards, your debt utilization percentage will definitely hurt your credit score. However, the more available “space” you have on your revolving credit, like credit cards, the better your credit score will be.

The great news is that student loans are considered installment debt, not revolving debt. They’re a different type of debt than credit cards and thus aren’t factored into this debt utilization score. So, if you have hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans but you’re not carrying a balance on your credit cards, your debt utilization percentage will be low, which is good for your credit score.

Now that I’ve listed the three parts of a credit score where doctors typically excel, I want to take the time to write about what can hurt your credit score too.

After all, the goal in life is generally to become financially well off, self-sufficient, and happy. Having a strong credit score can enable you to get lower interest rates on some of your biggest purchases, saving your thousands and thousands of dollars over the course of your life. This, in turn, will allow you to use your hard earned money for the things you actually want to do.

So, be aware of these two parts of a credit score as well:

1.  Credit Mix

 Lenders actually want you have a few different types of loans, called a credit mix, because it shows them that you’re able to successfully handle various types of payments like a house payment, credit card payment, and a car payment.

If you only have student loans, this could lower your score, but if you mixed it up a bit (see what I did there?) you could raise your credit score by a few points.

For older doctors who own houses, cars, and have business loans, it’s easy to have a decent credit mix. However, newer doctors who are just finished training might not have many different types of loans.

Keep in mind that credit mix is a small portion of your score and you shouldn’t go and take out loans that you don’t need for the sole purpose of improving this part of your score. However, if you need to bump up your score a few points to qualify for a better mortgage interest rate, diversifying the types of loans you have is something you can try.

2.  New Accounts

This might seem a little counter-intuitive to the point mentioned previously, but it’s something worth mentioning. Basically, lenders don’t like it when you open a bunch of new accounts at once. It signals to them that you’re in need of a lot of credit quickly or that you’re somehow in need of financial help.

So, avoid opening several different credit cards in one year. At the same time, avoid closing your old accounts. Lenders might not like to see a lot of new accounts but they love seeing old accounts in good standing. It shows that for many years you’ve been good about having loans and paying them back on time.

Keep in mind that as you go through your daily life, your credit score will fluctuate. It’ll fluctuate as you pay down debt. It’ll change if you refinance your student loans. It will also change if you get a new travel credit card or a new house. It’s okay for your score to go up and down some, as long as you’re consistently making your payments and checking your credit report regularly to ensure your identity is safe. I tell my clients to sign up for an account at Credit Karma because it’s free, you can check your score whenever you want, and you can dispute anything that’s not right your credit report easily and most importantly, quickly. After all, you don’t have a lot of free time to worry about your finances, right?

So, the good news for all the doctors reading this is that you probably have a high credit score already due to the points I mentioned above. However, if you don’t or if you’re looking to boost your score a few points, that’s absolutely possible by understanding how your credit score is calculated and knowing how you can improve it over time.

Ryan Inman is a fee-only financial planner who specializes in helping physicians and their families build a solid financial future through his firm, Physician Wealth Services. As the husband of a physician, Ryan has a unique insight into what it’s like to be a part of a physician family and thoroughly enjoys helping his clients. To schedule a free 30 minute consultation, feel free to contact Ryan at any time.

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3 Easy Steps to Becoming a Travel Hacker

You hear the word “hacking” a lot nowadays.  Traditionally, hacking was thought of as something negative.  Something we would not want our kids to do.

We think of a recluse living in his parents basement trying to break into a federal organization.  Or a group trying to take down a big evil organization’s website (which is pretty cool depending on who the big evil organization is).

But hacking has evolved recently.  Now you see articles about hacking your sleep or hacking your parenting.  You can find hacks to make it easier to cook dinner or decorate your home.  A hack is essentially a quick shortcut to make your life better.

The term travel hacker has also been in the media lately.  You read about people that have taken month long expeditions around the world for free (disclaimer: it’s not really free).  I’ve talked to many people about travel hacking and most shrug their shoulders and adopt a “must be nice” attitude.

As in, “must be nice for them but I would never be able to do something like that.”  While not everyone has the time or resources to travel hack their way to around the world trips, I will show you how pretty much anyone can travel for a lot less money.

Levels of Hacking

I’ve played basketball since I was a little kid.  I still enjoy playing it whenever I can get time.  Technically, I would call myself a basketball player.

You know who else is a basketball player?  Steph Curry.  While he is a (slightly) better basketball player than me, we’re both basketball players.  He is just on a (much) higher level.

The same thing applies to travel hacking.  If you just look at those “Steph Curry’s” of travel hacking who make elaborate trips to every continent with points, you will get disappointed.

But travel hacking, specifically travel hacking with credit cards, is a very accessible endeavor that can be scaled up as much as you wish.  It just depends on how much time you’re willing to put in.

I’ve been doing some low level travel hacking with credit cards for a few years now.  My wife is from the West Coast so we make trips there every so often.  Our goal is to at least make those trips with points along with a couple of vacations per year.  This is very attainable with a few hours of planning per month.

If you want to travel with your family of 5 to fancy European cities in first class, this is attainable as well.  But it’s going to take a lot of work.  It will amount to a full time job between signing up for credit cards, and staying on the phone with airline reps.  But it is possible, if you’re willing to put in the work.

My strategy:  Get the most lucrative credit card offers I can find and use those points to take our eventual West Coast trips.  This is essentially getting the “low hanging fruit” of travel hacking and optimizing it as much as possible.

It’s kind of like the 80/20 rule.  Give 20% effort to get 80% of the results.  That’s good enough for most people.  If I want to get better results, I need to give more effort but the work will be a lot more.  I currently don’t have the inclination to work 20+ hours a week to get better point redemptions, but I can if I choose to.

Anyway, here are the nuts and bolts of my current travel hacking strategy.

3 Steps to Travel Hacking

BIG Disclaimer:  Travel hacking with credit cards should not be an option if you plan to make late payments and not pay your balance off in full.  Any interest or late fees will quickly erase the reward benefit.  You have been warned!!

Without further ado here are the three steps it takes to get started in travel hacking:

1.  Apply and get approved for a credit card with a great sign up bonus.  (See some examples at the end of the post.)

You will need a pretty good credit score to get approved for most reward cards.  While there is no hard and fast rule, a credit score of 700 or above is usually good enough.

2.  Meet the minimum spend to snag the sign up bonus.

If a card offers a bonus of 50,000 points, for example, you will have to meet a minimum amount of spend in a certain amount of time to get those points.  A common one is spend $3,000 in 3 months.

While there are a ton of ways to increase spending artificially (and there are many blogs that will teach you how in depth), start with a bonus offer that is attainable with your regular everyday spending.  You can always scale up to a bigger offer once you feel comfortable.

3.  Repeat with another card.

You should cancel the first card if it has an annual fee and you don’t plan on using it.  If there is no annual fee, just keep the card and stick it in a drawer since having more credit will improve your credit score over time.

Something for Everybody

And that’s all there is to it.  There are so many strategies involving finding the best cards to apply for and when to apply.  Countless methods also exist to “manufacture” spend which will allow you to spend more to meet sign up bonuses without actually spending any of your own money.  So this stuff can get deep.

You can take a deep dive if you wish to find out more about these strategies.  Two sites that will provide you the advanced strategies you need for travel hacking are Million Mile Secrets (where I was featured once here!) and Frequent Miler.

But if you want to just stay on the surface and do one credit card bonus at a time to get easy rewards every few months, that’s okay too.  Travel hacking has a place for everybody.

Here are some good credit card bonuses that are currently available and some brief information about them (I don’t make anything off of these links):

Chase Sapphire Preferred:  Get 50,000 Ultimate Reward points after spending $4,000 in 3 months.  This is the go to card for many people including myself.  It gives you double points on travel and dining purchases.  And Ultimate Reward points are very versatile.  You can use them for cash back, flights or transfer to airline or hotel programs.

Chase Freedom:  Get $150 cash back after spending $500 in 3 months.  This is a great cash back card to have since the bonus is easy to get and it features 5% categories each quarter.  So one quarter of the year you will get 5% cash back on dining purchases, for example, and the next month will get 5% on gas purchases.

Chase Southwest:  Get 40,000 Southwest points after spending $1,000 in 3 months.  I fly Southwest a lot and I know a lot of people that do as well.  Southwest points are pretty valuable, and this sign up bonus can easily get you $500 worth of flights.

American Express Premier Rewards Gold:  Get 25,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $2,000 in 3 months.  AMEX has many good travel cards and this is one of the best.  Membership Reward points can be used to book flights directly and can be transferred to other programs.  This card also gets you double points at restaurants, grocery stores and gas stations.

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I Would Love to do Peer to Peer Lending but…

check-cashing

Our state is too good for P2P lending, but not too good for establishments like this.

Update:  As of February 2016, Lending Club is now open to Maryland residents!  Click here for the details.    I will be doing some heavy research into this before I take the plunge, so look for an update on my journey into P2P lending.  Edit:  Still no Prosper though 🙁  

I’ve been hearing a lot about Peer to Peer Lending (also known as P2P lending).  It’s one of those topics I just kind of glossed over since I had more “pressing” things to learn about like student loans, investing and trying to freelance.  Before last week I had a rough idea of how it worked.  Many people were reportedly getting great returns, but it seemed like a lot more work than I would have liked.  It seemed complex and then some bloggers reported that they were still getting good returns, but not as high as before.  I didn’t think it was worth my time.

But last week I heard an interview on the Stacking Benjamins podcast (which is a great podcast by the way).  The interview was with Simon Cunningham, who runs a website called Lendingmemo.  His interview pretty put P2P lending in a much clearer light for me and I was itching to learn more.  I went over to LendingMemo and got some great information.  Here are what I believe to be the pros of P2P lending:

  • You’re loaning capital to actual people, and not a big corporation.  The vast majority of borrowers on P2P sites are looking for help paying off credit card debt.  I could definitely get behind that.
  • It’s relatively low risk.  The two big P2P sites are Lending Club and Prosper, and they each have their own algorithms they use to determine the risk that a borrower will default on their loan.  According to LendingMemo, the default rate for Lending Club is around 5%, which was a lot lower than I expected.  Higher risk borrowers give investors the potential for higher returns, while low risk borrowers give less a return but a good chance that you will get a return at all.  It’s like a balancing act between risk and reward, which is what investing generally is.
  • Returns are solid.  According to Lending Club, historical returns of their lowest risk loans range from 4.91%-8.38%.  That’s a very good return for what seems like a low risk investment.  And it certainly beats the pants off of an online savings account or CD.  While past returns don’t reflect future performance, it’s good to keep them in mind.
  • It seems like fun.  My preferred method of long term investing, making regular contributions to index funds, is pretty boring.  The only thing I may have to do is rebalance, which takes just a few minutes.  Otherwise, it’s set it and forget it.  With P2P lending there are a few more decisions you have to make, and while they do have an automatic contribution system to make things super easy, you still have to check on your loans from time to time.  This seems like it would be be a fun mental exercise.

I say it SEEMS like fun, because I will not be able to see if it is really fun.  Here’s the notice I received when I tried to sign up for an account at Lending Club:

lending club deniedYes, because I live in the state of Maryland, I can’t participate in direct P2P lending as a borrower or as an investor.  As a medical professional, I’m used to the zany differences from one state to another, but this was just a little annoying.  Some states allow you to use Lending Club only.  Some states allow Prosper only.  There are only 3 states that don’t allow any type of P2P activity (Kansas, Ohio and Maryland), and I happen to live in one of them.  This would firmly fall into the category of a first world problem, but it’s still a problem.  (Here is an interactive map that diagrams all the craziness between states).

So what is an aspiring P2P’er from Maryland to do?  My plan is to do some more research on P2P lending until I know it front to back.  In the meantime I’m still working on getting rid of a 6% student loan, so paying that off would be a pretty good use of my money.  And then I’ll just wait until the curmudgeons in charge of Maryland join the P2P bandwagon.

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Get a 2%+ Return on Every Credit Card Purchase

credit cards

The idea of getting something for nothing has always been the holy grail.

The goose that lays golden eggs.  The Fountain of Youth.  Turning lead into gold.  All these stuffs of legend involve getting something amazing without having to expend any resources.

We usually have to spend our time or money in order to get something of value.  If you could find something that automatically rewards you while not expending any effort, you will be immortalized into greatness.

However, there is something pretty close.  And almost anyone can do it: Using reward credit cards for all of your purchases.

Many people use credit cards to make purchases at the grocery store, doctor’s office or shopping online.  Why not use a credit card that earns you rewards for those purchases you make anyway?

It’s almost like getting something for nothing.

But there is a little upfront work that needs to be done.  Not too much work, but once everything is in place, anyone can easily get at least a 2% return on every single purchase they make without paying any extra to a credit card company.

But it all begins with a plan.

Have a Strategy

Anyone who uses credit cards needs to have a strategy.  At best, using any random card just because you have it will not really get you anywhere.  At worst, it can get you into credit card debt.

If you don’t have a coherent credit card strategy, you might as well save yourself the trouble and just use cash.

The lowest credit rate interest rates I’ve seen are around 8%.  The highest I’ve seen are about 30%.  There is absolutely no reason to get into credit card debt if you’re somewhat mindful of your spending and you have a strategy.

My philosophy on credit cards is pretty simple:

-Use credit cards for every purchase for great purchase protection that cash will never give you.

-Look at each statement as it comes in to track your spending and make sure you’re not busting your budget.

-Use a rewards credit card that will give you the best reward depending on what you’re buying.  For example, if a card gives you 3% cash back on gas, only use that card and not another one when you buy gas.

Pay off your complete statement balance in full each and every time.  If you don’t do this step and start building up credit card debt,  then you have no business using a credit card.

-Bonus:  I like to submit my payment one week before the due date.  That way, I’m taking full advantage of the interest free loan the credit card company is giving me without having to worry about the payment being late.

When it comes to deciding which rewards card to use, analyze what you spend the most money on and pick a card that maximizes that.

If you cook at home and have kids, you probably spend a lot at the grocery store so pick a credit card that gives rewards for grocery purchases.

If you tend to eat out a lot, pick a card that gives you rewards for restaurant purchases.

If you travel a lot on a specific airline or stay at a specific hotel for work, pick a card for that airline or hotel to get the maximum benefit.

Once you have your strategy to stay out of debt and figure out where you spend the most money, it’s time to sign up for your cards and use them to optimize your rewards.

My Credit Card Choices

Every few months, I sign up for new credit cards with big sign up bonuses.  Some of these sign up bonuses can be worth several hundreds of dollars so it is well worth my time to do this.

But when I’m not chasing sign up bonuses, I have some cards I fall back on for my regular spending.  You can click on the links to learn more about the cards.  They are not affiliate links so I receive nothing if you decide to sign up:

Citi Double Cash Card:  This is my default everyday card.  It gives 2% cash back (1% when you buy something and 1% when you pay off the bill).  You can redeem the card for a check in the mail or a statement credit.  Really easy to use.  And no annual fee which is great.

American Express Blue Cash Preferred:  I use this card for grocery purchases.  It gives you 6% cash back on purchases at any grocery store (except warehouse stores) up to $6,000 for the year.  It has an annual fee of $95, which brings the actual cash back percentage to around 4.5%, which is still pretty good.

Bank of America Cash Rewards:  I use this card for gas purchases.  It gives 3% cash back for money spent at gas stations.  I also get a tiny 10% bonus for having the cash back deposited into my Bank of America checking account.

Chase Freedom:  This is one card you have to pay attention to.  It gives 1% cash back on all purchases, nothing special, but has 5% cash back categories which change every quarter.  They have some good categories like gas, groceries, restaurants, and Amazon purchases.

Discover It:  Similar to Chase Freedom, this card also has rotating 5% categories.  They usually have different categories from each other, so if you have both cards you’ll probably have at least one 5% category that applies to you per quarter.

And that’s pretty much it.  Using these cards strategically gets me 2.5% cash back easy on all of my purchases for the month.  Some months are even better depending on what I’m buying.  I especially like the Blue Cash Preferred card since you can buy so many different things at grocery stores.  Like gift cards!

There are also many travel specific cards that will give you things like airline points or travel reimbursements instead of cash back.  Using credit cards for travel can get complicated so check out one of the many travel blogs available ot find out more.  A couple of my favorite are Million Mile Secrets and The Frequent Miler.

Choose what works for you and get some easy money.

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When You Don’t Want to Be Making More Money

Having a child was one of the best decisions we ever made.  Seeing our son go from sitting up to crawling to walking to running and now parroting everything he hears (gotta watch what I say now!) has been a joy and a privilege to be a part of.  Raising a child has its ups and downs, but there is no sweeter challenge in my opinion.

Old Faithful

Through all the highs and lows of trying to corral the little guy long enough to shove some food down his throat, there is one thing that has always been there through thick and thin.  My wife, of course, but also our emergency fund.  While many people complain that you just can’t make any money in a savings account in today’s low interest environment, I would argue that having adequate emergency savings has allowed our family to avoid getting into credit card debt, which is huge.

Credit card debt is something we never plan to take on (have you read this article people?!), and it is our emergency fund that ensures this doesn’t happen.  I give the example of our son earlier, because we needed the emergency fund right when he came into the world.

Born to be Expensive

When you become pregnant, the doctor gives you an expected delivery date.  This is based on millennia of evidence that kids are usually formed in the womb and then released in about 9 months.  In our experience, however, consider the delivery date as a guideline, because that’s exactly what my son considered it when he decided to come out early.

He was slated to arrive in early January, an assessment that the doctor was “fairly confident” in.  Our son was fairly confident that wasn’t going to happen and decided he wanted out 2 weeks earlier.  Coming out a little earlier is fairly common, so what does the emergency fund have to so with it?  I planned to use 2013 FSA money (mistake #1) to pay for all the hospital costs, which were many.  Since he wanted to be born in 2012, that was no longer a possibility.  And since we didn’t really budget for the costs (mistake #2), we had to get the money from somewhere.

E-Fund to the Rescue

Luckily, ever since I got my first job I began socking away a portion of my income into a savings account every month.  Once I became an optometrist, this amount increased accordingly.  So we had a nice amount saved up and hadn’t touched it for a while.  All it took was a simple transfer from my savings account to my checking account.  No worries where the money would be coming from, no working extra to scrounge up the money, and more importantly, no going into credit card debt like most people end up doing.

Many people balk at having healthy a healthy emergency fund, or an emergency fund at all, because of the opportunity cost involved.  That is, money which is earning very little interest in an emergency fund could be earning much more money if invested in the stock market or in real estate.  This is most likely true, but it’s off point because the purpose of your emergency fund is to give you the ability to pull out money quickly when needed, which investing in the stock market or real estate will not allow (except a Roth IRA, which is just one of the reasons why it is awesome).  Having the ability to draw cash in a short amount of time should be a cornerstone of any financial plan, no matter what type of investor you are.

My emergency fund has saved my skin a bunch of times, and I would imagine it will keep doing so.  Unless you’re independently wealthy and have gobs of money just laying around, having a well stocked emergency fund will give you piece of mind and keep you out of the red.

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The Best Retirement Account for Young People

Dude.  Check out this new HSA I got.

Dude. Check out this new HSA I got.

When I graduated optometry school and was finally making real honest to goodness money, I didn’t really know what to do with it.  I knew I should save some for a rainy day, so I did that while paying off my student loans.  I wasn’t even doing that efficiently until I learned the Avalanche method.  I decided to start reading up on investing and money management in general, and eventually got my 401k funded, maxed out a Roth IRA and even started a 529 plan for my son.  Let me just pat myself on the back real fast.

But the account that I think has the most bang for the buck, especially for young people just out of school, is the Health Savings Account, or HSA.  I have written before about how great the HSA is, but over time I’ve come to realize that it’s not just a great account for most people, but it is an amazing, and dare I say “must have” account for young people especially.  That’s because it can serve as an emergency fund for short term healthcare expenses and also act as a retirement account.

A Versatile Account

HSA’s aren’t usually advertised as retirement accounts.  They are shown to be a benefit that comes with signing up for a High Deductible Health Plan (HDHP).  These plans usually have high deductibles and low monthly premiums, so you end up paying for your care out of pocket, but you pay less every month for the plan.  The HSA is there to set aside some money ($6,660 is the limit for families for 2015) pre-tax that will help you pay for those out of pocket costs.  This can serve as a kind of personal healthcare emergency fund, which you can use to augment your regular emergency fund sitting in your savings account.

While this is a great benefit in itself, it starts getting more interesting for the following 2 reasons:

  • Many HSA providers give you the option to choose investments.  These range from ultra conservative money market funds to aggressive stock funds.
  • Any type of non healthcare related expense that you use an HSA distribution for before the age of 65 will be taxed and you will have to pay a penalty.  But after 65, any type distribution can be taken penalty free.

Having investment choices and penalty free distributions after 65 makes this account almost exactly like a Traditional IRA.  But why is this a good thing for young people?  It’s because, for the most part, young people are healthy and don’t spend much on healthcare.  If you’re someone who is in relatively good health and doesn’t spend much on healthcare throughout the year, then the HSA is a fantastic choice.  You can leave the money in the account to grow from a young age, and when you get to be 65, you can start withdrawing the money for any type of retirement expense.  Along the way, you can always tap the money for any large healthcare expenses that come up.

Final Thoughts

For people like this, my advice is as follows:  Open an HSA as soon as you are able.  Contribute the maximum amount every year since this will help you save money on taxes.  If your provider has investment options, simply choose an aggressive fund with low fees and let it ride, changing to less aggressive funds as 65 gets closer.  Any small healthcare expenses can be paid out of your own pocket (with a credit card that earns rewards of course).  You may have to tap the account for any large expenses, but ithat’s okay since that what the account is for anyway!

This is a fairly simple strategy that can provide great diversification among your accounts.  If you are a young person with few healthcare costs, you will be doing your future self a great favor by signing up for an HSA and using it the right way.

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