(BPT) - If you're carrying a balance on your credit card, don't worry - most Americans are too. In fact, the average U.S. household carries just over $15,000 of credit card debt, which isn't a bad thing when managed properly. Let's look at the big picture.
You most likely have more than one credit card - your first card is from your college days, and the second one you picked up because it had travel rewards. After a few years of properly budgeting your finances and making payments on time, you've improved your credit score quite a bit. That first card you got in college with the high interest rate no longer makes sense to have as a tool in your wallet. Sounds like it's time to consolidate your balances.
Balance transfers allow you to take the balances on your existing cards and transfer them to another credit card, usually at a lower rate. This new lower rate helps to reduce your level of debt because more of your monthly payment will go toward paying off debt principal, rather than paying interest.
"A balance transfer at a low rate makes it easier to pay down your balance, improving your debt-to-credit ratio as your balance decreases," said Randy Hopper, vice president of credit cards at Navy Federal Credit Union.
Reducing your debt sounds great, but wouldn't it be awesome to be debt-free? To truly benefit from a balance transfer, follow these simple tips:
Know when a deal isn't actually a deal
Typically, credit card issuers charge a fee associated with a balance transfer. This could be a flat fee per number of transfers, or percentage of the total balance you're bringing over to the new card.
"Keep an eye out for balance transfers with no fees, zero percent interest during the introductory period and a low rate after the intro period expires," Hopper says. This is where you can really make a difference to your credit score, but make sure you select a card that will give you enough time to pay down your balance in full.
Be sure to read the fine print on the zero percent offers, too. It could be in your best interest to choose a 2.99 percent APR that doesn't have a balance transfer fee, over a zero percent offer with a three percent fee. In the long run, it could cost you more than you're saving.
Consolidate from high to low
If you've got several credit cards and have trouble managing payments, consolidate to one card. You can save money on interest by moving your higher balances into this new account with a lower interest rate. Check the APR on all your credit cards to know which ones would be best for a balance transfer.
"This is a great option for store cards that usually have high interest rates, where credit unions never charge more than 18 percent," Hopper says.
Once you've consolidated your credit card debt, avoid making purchases until your debt is paid down. Remember, your goal is to become debt free. Making any new purchases will start accruing interest immediately, which isn't ideal.
Always pay on time
Make your payments on time or you could be hit with a penalty APR. Not only do missed payments negatively affect your credit score, but you could risk losing the low introductory rate as well. Forgoing your intro period APR could mean missing your goal of becoming debt-free.
"If possible, set up automatic payments along with alerts on your mobile device to ensure payments are made on time," says Hopper. "Maintaining a healthy track record will boost your credit score."
You'll lose them if you don't use them
Finally, when your balance hits zero, keep the account open. Doing so indicates your track record of reliability. As a general rule, credit cards that are in good standing over a long period of time positively impact your credit score. The longer these accounts are open, the better it is for your profile.
If you're looking for a lower interest rate, a simplified payment process, or both, balance transfers are for you. Reducing your credit card debt is within reach. With a good payoff plan and the right card, you could become debt-free sooner than you think!
(BPT) - The holidays may be over, but refund season is just beginning, and there’s a lot to celebrate. This tax season, while consumers are eagerly awaiting their refund, tax preparation companies, tax officials and the IRS are working together to combat one of the fastest growing threats for tax season 2016 - tax identity fraud.
Based on IRS data, nearly 3 million people have been victims of tax identity theft since 2010. Every year, criminals use increasingly advanced tactics - particularly geared toward taxpayers filing online - to steal taxpayers’ personal information, file fraudulent tax returns in their names and steal their refunds. After fraud occurs, it can take months and multiple steps by the victim to access a stolen refund and regain an identity with the IRS.
Protect your identity - and your refund - with these five tax tips from H&R Block:
File early and be cautious. Filing your taxes early will allow you to claim your refund before a criminal can. Before you file, protect your personal information by installing a security software with anti-virus and firewall protections.
Keep your paper records safe. Shred records you are no longer using and keep your social security card and any sensitive documents under lock and key.
Do not respond to individuals posing as a tax agency. The IRS does not demand immediate payment without sending a bill in the mail first. If you receive a phone call or an email with an external link, do not click on the link or share personal or financial information unless you personally know the person on the other end.
Change your password. The 2015 tax season saw a significant increase of tax fraud in the do-it-yourself (DIY) space. When using at-home tax software, such as H&R Block’s DIY products, create a strong password with capitalization, numbers, and symbols or avoid the risk by visiting a tax preparer.
Use tax identity protection services. Visit the IRS website to learn more about how to protect your identity. Additionally, H&R Block’s Tax Identity Shield provides clients with tools to reduce the risk of tax identity theft and resolution services, if a client becomes a victim of tax identity theft.
This tax season, take away the stress and put the “fun” back in “refund” by filing early. Plus, this year, you’ll have a chance to boost your refund - as an extra incentive, H&R Block is celebrating refund season by awarding $1,000 a day to 1,000 people. The first drawing for this limited time offer is Jan. 16. Visit hrblock.com/grand for rules and an alternate method of entry. Enter early to protect your refund and for more chances to win.
(BPT) - What do parents of toddlers and parents of high school students have in common? Both worry about paying for college. With the constantly rising costs of higher education, financial aid becomes more important than ever for making the dream of a college education possible. So if you’re interested in receiving financial aid, where should you start?
“The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is your gateway to money for college from both the federal and state governments for most colleges and universities,” says Mark Kantrowitz, author of “Filing the FAFSA” and “Secrets to Winning a Scholarship.” “Filing the FAFSA correctly is crucial, as it has a direct effect on how much money you receive from various types of financial aid.”
College Ave Student Loans partnered with Kantrowitz to offer top tips for maximizing your need-based financial aid for college:
1. Save strategically
When it comes to covering the cost of college, financial aid should be at the forefront of your mind, whether you’re ready to file the FAFSA right now or not. It’s best to save money for college in a parent’s name, rather than the student’s, as the FAFSA assesses money in the parent’s name at a much lower rate. Every $10,000 in student assets reduces aid eligibility by $2,000, while every $10,000 in parent assets only reduces eligibility by up to $564.
2. File early
The earlier you file the FAFSA, the better. Right now, you should file the FAFSA as soon as possible on or after Jan. 1, but starting in 2017, you can start as early as Oct. 1. Ten states award aid on a first come, first served basis, and 12 have hard deadlines in February and March. Specific schools can also have specific deadlines, and students who file early may qualify for more aid. So, as a rule of thumb, file the FAFSA in January to maximize your eligibility.
3. Minimize income in the base year
Using income and tax information from a previous year, or base year, the FAFSA calculates the financial strength of your family. Because the formula is heavily weighted on income, it’s a good idea to reduce your income in the base year. If you can, avoid realizing capital gains. If you must sell stocks, bonds or other investments, try to offset capital gains with losses. Taking retirement plan distributions during the base year will also count as income.
4. Reduce reportable assets
Minimize your money in the bank by using it to pay credit card and loan debts. This not only makes good financial planning sense, but may help you qualify for more aid.
5. Maximize the number of children in college at the same time
Something as simple as having more than one child in college can dramatically increase your changes of receiving more financial aid. While you can’t change the ages of your children, you can use this impact on aid eligibility as a deciding factor when determining whether to allow your child to skip a grade.
6. Seek generous and low-cost colleges
There are many generous colleges, including some in the Ivy League, which implement “no loans” financial aid policies. This means they replace loans with grants in the student’s need-based financial aid package. Additionally, in-state public colleges are likely to be your least expensive option, especially after subtracting gift aid, grants and scholarships.
7. Organize your documents and information
Filing the FAFSA is all about the details. Pay attention and stay organized to get the job done right, starting by filing the FAFSA for the correct year and staying on top of deadlines. Make sure to use the right Social Security Number, date or birth, marital status and correct financial information. Follow the instructions and fill out the forms as carefully as possible to get the most accurate results.
Once you receive your financial aid award letter and assess your savings, you’ll have time to consider taking out a loan. If you need it, find a simple option that works for you, such as College Ave Student Loans.
Navigating the world of financial aid can be tricky, so follow these tips to maximize your eligibility and make college a reality. For more information and resources, visit collegeavestudentloans.com.
(BPT) - Families who have children heading off to college are likely navigating an array of options when it comes to actually paying for higher education. A new white paper by Prudential Financial titled Paying For College: A Practical Guide for Families, seeks to dispel some of the misconceptions surrounding loans, grants, scholarships, and available tax benefits. If the bad news about financing a college education is that it can be complex and time-consuming, the good news is that families willing to educate themselves on the process (and familiarize themselves with the potential pitfalls) can develop a strategy that does not break the bank for students or the parents.
“It can be a daunting process, but well worth the effort, especially if it means avoiding large amounts of debt or not dipping into retirement savings ” said Caroline Feeney, President, Prudential Advisors. “If it seems too intimidating, don’t be afraid to seek guidance because there is a good chance you’ll be able to put the right payment strategy in place that works for your family.”
Creating a Plan that Fits Your Family
While earning a college degree is certainly a worthwhile pursuit, the skyrocketing costs of college tuition can leave many students laden with burdensome levels of debt. Parents can also struggle, often sacrificing retirement savings to help their children.
According to Feeney, “We urge families to tap in to school resources, guidance and financial aid counselors, as well as the experience of a financial professional who can help them make critical decisions with respect to leveraging existing financial resources in a way that helps protect longer-term financial security.”
The report provides a roadmap for financing a college education. It provides basic, foundational information about qualifying for undergraduate financial aid, taking out public and private education loans, and taking advantage of potential tax deductions and credits. It also offers targeted advice for single, as well as divorced parents.
Seeking Aid: Knowledge is Power
One of the primary goals when researching college payment options is identifying all of the sources that do not result in long-term debt. For families who lack the resources to save in advance or to fund that education on a pay-as-you-go basis, seeking all types of financial aid is essential. Some considerations include:
Becoming familiar with the application deadline and requirements for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) https://fafsa.ed.gov/.
Learning the pros and cons of aid sources available, including grants, scholarships, work-study programs, tax credits, and tax deductions.
Researching the variables that affect a student’s access to financial aid, including choice of school, how much and in what form the family has saved for college, and how adept the family is at working through the process of applying for help.
Once they do their homework, families may be surprised to learn about more effective ways to qualify for grants and scholarships, and if student loans must be taken out, how to navigate the new repayment options that have become available.
Divorced and single parents also have special provisions available to them that are worth looking into.
“Every family has unique circumstances to consider. Investing time with a financial professional who can help guide them through resource planning can help alleviate some of the stress associated with understanding the process and making sure that the family’s finances are well handled,” said Feeney.
To learn more, visit www.prudential.com/payingforcollege.
(BPT) - Providing for a family. Getting an education. Striving for the American dream. Sarah Thomas of Bono, AR, was like so many others, trying to better her life. She got a master’s in nursing in order to give herself and her son a bright future, but soon after found herself overwhelmed by loans.
“I pursued an education and ended up with a ton of credit card debt,” says Thomas. “The American dream gone wrong.”
She’s not alone. The average U.S. household with debt carries $15,355 in credit card debt and $129,579 in total debt, according to nerdwallet.com. And the Federal Reserve's interest rate hike this month means that you will be paying even more interest on your debt; that 0.25 percent rate increase equates to $2 billion in extra fees for Americans next year. For people like Thomas, the weight of paying off high-interest loans can be overwhelming.
Thomas was able to consolidate her high-interest debt and take control of her finances. If you want to take control of your financial future and eliminate debt, these simple yet highly-effective strategies can make a big difference.
Step 1: Build a solid budget
Use an online budgeting tool like Mint.com to organize your spending. Even if you aren’t able to stick to the budget you set every month, it’s important to know where your dollars are going so you can take action accordingly.
Step 2: Consider cost-cutting measures
Can you switch to a cheaper phone plan? Could you cut cable? What about buying generic brands? These are important questions you can ask as you audit your expenses and take appropriate measures to trim unnecessary spending.
Step 3: Research debt consolidation options
Marketplace lending, also called peer-to-peer lending, is an alternative to traditional loans through which borrowers get access to low, fixed rates (insulated from further rate increases by the Fed) with no hidden fees or prepayment penalties. The industry is growing rapidly, with one of the leading platforms, Prosper, surpassing $5 billion in loans this year.
For many, a debt consolidation loan helps simplify things. Instead of having multiple bills with varying high interest rates, you can take out a loan to pay off all your debt, and then simply repay the one loan at a lower fixed interest rate. For many people, having one payment versus many makes it much easier to feel like they are in control of their finances.
An added benefit is that rates are often lower than with a credit card. According to a WiseBread.com article, it’s important to begin the peer-to-peer lending process by getting a rate quote. Then you can do the math to determine how much money you can save consolidating your debt and paying it off at an accelerated pace.
Thomas decided to consolidate her debt through Prosper. She went to www.prosper.com and selected the loan’s amount and purpose. “It’s been the easiest, most streamlined process that I have ever had,” says Thomas. “I am so thankful that we now have an attainable way to pay off debt. That way we can be proud of our hard work rather than forever burdened by it.”
To learn more, check out Prosper’s blog at http://blog.prosper.com.
(BPT) - Many Americans start the New Year by resolving to improve their lives by exercising more, losing weight or making other changes. Based on research findings, one in five should resolve to put their financial house in order.
Research by MassMutual shows that many Americans struggle with their personal finances, especially when it comes to making the most of their employee benefits:
“Many people muddle through personal financial decisions and simply hope for the best,” said Elaine Sarsynski, executive vice president, MassMutual Retirement Services and Worksite Insurance. “Unfortunately, all too often people make the wrong choices and risk leaving themselves unprepared for life’s financial realities. Making the right choices can lead to greater peace of mind.”
Financial planning is a discipline built on a hierarchy of needs. Psychologist Abraham Maslow first introduced the hierarchy in the form of a pyramid to explain human behavior, starting with basic needs such as food and shelter at the bottom or foundation. Other needs build from there, in order of priority, including safety, social connections, self-esteem and, at the top of the pyramid, growth.
According to Maslow’s theory, basic needs must be satisfied before higher needs can be addressed. Food, water and shelter take priority over other needs such as whether or not your car has heated seats or a sun roof.
The hierarchy of needs work well when establishing financial priorities and making financial decisions, according to Sarsynski. The layers of the pyramid can be matched to financial planning choices and even benefits selections:
Be Safe: The foundation of the pyramid is safety. Most people and their families need financial protection from dying prematurely, suffering a long-term or even a short-term disability, or becoming seriously ill. That means most people should prioritize signing up for healthcare coverage, life and disability insurance.
Build Savings: Once financial protection is in place, many of us should address shorter-term goals such as accumulating personal savings, building up cash for emergencies, and eliminating short-term debts such as credit card balances and car loans. Purchasing critical illness coverage can help protect savings, potentially avoid future debts, or provide a financial cushion in the event you or someone in your family suffers a serious illness or injury.
Plan for Retirement: Next, most of us need to plan for the future, which means building wealth and reducing debt over the long term. Saving for retirement through an employer’s 401(k) or other retirement savings program is a good long-term priority. Other long-term goals should be saving for college if you have children and eliminating mortgage debt.
Pursue Dreams: Those who accomplish those goals and who are fortunate enough to have additional financial resources can then consider their financial dreams that fall into the esteem and growth categories. Travel, pursuing expensive hobbies, purchasing a vacation home and other goals should be pursued only after other needs are met.
“We all have important financial needs, wants and dreams. The key is to understand the difference and to take care of your most basic protection needs first,” Sarsynski said. “Your employer’s benefit package should be a place to start.”
(BPT) - By 2029, more than 76 million baby boomers will be 65 or older, according to recent Census estimates. While there is great upside to increased longevity, there are also challenges. Inflation, climbing health care expenses and ebbing safety nets are complex dynamics to navigate through an extended retirement.
One key aspect of longer lifespans many Americans overlook is caregiving. In fact, the government estimates 70 percent of adults 65 or older will require some form of long-term care (“LTC”). Recent findings from Northwestern Mutual’s 2015 C.A.R.E. (Costs, Accountabilities, Realities, Expectations) Study underscore this reality. Nearly four in 10 Americans (36 percent) are currently or have been caregivers to adults who are aging, ill or with special needs. The study further reveals caregiving, while rewarding, can have significant financial and emotional implications.
The good news is that whether boomer or any other generation, it is rarely too late to create - or adjust - a financial planning strategy that will help you live your desired lifestyle through your lifespan. Rebekah Barsch, vice president, planning and sales, Northwestern Mutual, suggests the following:
Face the financial realities. The Northwestern Mutual 2015 Planning & Progress Study found outliving their retirement savings is among the top financial fears for Americans. Moreover, a solid portion do not feel at all financially prepared to live through their 80s and 90s. Combined with rising costs and the potential long-term care needs, avoidance is no longer an option.
Speak up. Though finances are an uncomfortable topic for many, a candid dialogue is essential to making important decisions. This is especially important when it comes to difficult topics like long-term care, which could impact the entire family. Understanding the concerns and wishes of your loved ones is the cornerstone of effective planning.
Know when you need help. When it comes to financial planning, half of the boomers (age 50-68) in the 2015 Planning & Progress Study said they were either informal or non-planners. Considering the correlation between planning and financial security in retirement, as well as the added complexities of longevity, a self-directed approach can be a risky bet when the stakes are high. An expert can take an objective look at your finances and tailor a strategy that adapts as your financial needs evolve.