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Now that the last holiday cookie has been eaten and the last New Year’s toast has been made, it’s time to vacuum the confetti and, for many Americans, face a sobering post-holiday credit card bill.

For some, those bills are the dark side of the holidays. They run up debt in the holiday shopping season and then scramble to repay it at the start of the new year — often with limited success.

Zero-interest balance transfer credit card offers can help you meet this challenge, but only if you know what to look for. Otherwise, you will end up paying interest anyway, which is exactly what the credit card companies hope will happen.

Time to pay the piper

The image of people overspending during the holiday season and then trying to make up for it after New Year’s Day is anything but a myth.

Chart depicting rise in revolving consumer credit from 1989 to 2014

According to a Consumerism Commentary analysis of Federal Reserve figures, since 1989, Americans accumulated an average of nearly $30.3 billion in new credit card debt in the final three months of the year. In the first three months, they paid down an average of $24.1 billion in credit card debt.

Click on the image to the left, and you can see that Americans run up more holiday debt than they repay after New Year’s Day. This problem is made worse by the fact that they also run up debt in the second and third quarters of the year.

As a result, credit card debt increased four-fold over those 25 years, to nearly $890 billion.

Balance transfer credit cards – what to look for

What adds to this problem is that the debt accumulates interest, often at high rates. Zero-interest balance transfer credit cards can help, by buying you some time to pay off your debt without interest. However, it is important to know what to look for when considering an offer:

  1. Does the offer apply to your credit profile? Credit card companies advertise their most attractive terms, but these only apply to the most attractive customers – those with strong credit ratings. Current offers being marketed show 0% APR on balances transferred for as long as 21 months (Chase Slate® is currently offering no balance transfer fees, and 0% APR for 15 months – over a year of 0% APR for balances transferred within the first 60 days) – but the cream of the crop of balance transfer offers are only available to those with great credit. If your score is above 740, you are considered to have prime credit and can probably choose from any offer that’s out there. At the other end of the spectrum, if your credit score is below 620, you are considered sub-prime and probably won’t get the best credit card terms.
  2. How long does the zero interest offer last? These offers are temporary, so compare to see which ones give you the longest interest-free period. Those periods can range from a few months to over a year, so it does make a big difference. People assume that when the time expires they can always roll any remaining balance into a new zero-interest balance transfer credit card, but opening new accounts frequently can damage your credit rating. Ultimately, this could make new zero-interest offers unavailable to you.
  3. What is the interest rate after the initial period? Chances are you will incur interest charges eventually, either on the unpaid portion of your transferred balance, or on new purchases. So, it is important to compare rates you would be paying after the zero-interest period runs out.
  4. Is there a fee for transfers? Keep in mind that these fees, which are often 3 percent of any transferring balance, will reduce the savings of the zero interest period. Compare to see which cards have low transfer fees. As mentioned above, Chase Slate® is one notable example of a card that is offering no balance transfer fees and 15 months with 0% APR as a part of its introductory offer.
  5. What is the credit limit? Make sure the limit is high enough to allow you to consolidate your existing credit card debt, or at least a meaningful portion of it.

The ultimate question: What is your repayment plan?

After you’ve asked all the right questions about different credit card offers, you have to ask yourself one very important question: What is your plan for paying down that debt? You need a budget with a payment plan that lets you project how long it will take you to pay off your credit card balances, preferably before any zero-interest offers run out.

One way or another, the build-up of debt is a problem that won’t be solved by simply moving it around. The best balance transfer credit card offers can help you pay off your debt less expensively with zero interest, but the clear goal must be to pay off that debt completely.

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The best high-yield online savings accounts offer strong interest rates and great customer service, making them a popular option for savers. Studies also show online savings accounts often come with lower fees.

“High-yield” is unfortunately a bit of a misnomer these days; a decade ago, interest rates were 4% and 5% among select savings accounts and money market accounts. Today, the best rates are around 2% while a fair amount are still hovering around 1% or more. This trend will continue until banks and credit unions need more cash from depositors.

Interest rates

Interest rates are important because money shouldn’t lose too much purchasing power. In a perfect world, interest rates offered by banks should beat inflation while preserving the balance without risk. I am not aware of any bank offering a savings option with ongoing interest rates high enough to beat inflation, whether measured by the government-reported CPI-U or by any other meaningful measure of consumer prices. Nevertheless, if your savings is at a brick and mortar bank earning below 0.25% APY, choose one of the better options below.

Customer service

When evaluating customer service, there are two important factors to consider. The best banks offer all account maintenance and transfers through a professional, reliable, and easy-to-navigate website. Secondly, live customer service representatives should be knowledgeable, helpful, and available, although customers should have to deal with a representative infrequently if at all.

Based on my own experiences and reviews from other Consumerism Commentary readers, here are the most-recommended accounts for short-term savings. All of the listed interest rates directly below from our partners and in the table that follows are current but they are subject to change by the banks. Although I have nine accounts listed below the table of rates, you don’t need to have accounts with that many different banks. Choose one that fits you the best.

First, here is a list of the latest interest rates. Following this table, I offer a few of my own observations and opinions about savings accounts from nine popular online banks. Read the full article →

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New baby? No doubt this new arrival has turned every aspect of your life upside down in the best possible way. Now is the time to make sure your financial house is in order. Here’s a 10-step account and financial checklist to lay the groundwork for your little one’s successful future.

New account checklist for new babies

1. Apply for a Social Security number for the baby: An SSI number is the linchpin to open a bank account in your child’s name, purchase savings bonds, obtain medical coverage and access government benefits.

2. Review your life insurance: If you don’t have life insurance, you should get coverage as soon as possible. If you already have a life insurance policy, check to make sure it’s adequate to cover the needs of the new addition to the family.

3. Pick a guardian: Choose a family member or close friend who is willing and financially able to care for your child, should you or the other parent pass away or become incapacitated before your child turns 18.

4. Set up powers of attorney: Put in writing your legal power of attorney, which sets out who will be responsible for your financial and personal affairs should you be unable to make those decisions for yourself. You also should set up a health care power of attorney that makes your wishes known in the event you become seriously ill and are unable to participate in decisions about your care.

5. Write your will: It’s not just wealthy people who need a will. Every parent should create a document spelling out how his or her estate should be handled. The will may also include or reference legal guardianship and powers of attorney.

6. Open a savings account in the baby’s name: Choose a no-fee, no-minimum balance, online savings account. You can link the savings account to your checking for automatic withdrawals.

7. Set up an emergency fund: You should put aside money from each paycheck into a savings account with the goal of having sufficient funds to cover living expenses for six months.

8. Review your work benefits: Confirm how much paid (and unpaid) maternity leave is offered through the birth mom’s employer, and whether paid leave is available for the other parent. Determine how you will obtain health benefits for the baby, either through an employer or government plan. Consult with your human resources office on flexible spending accounts and other benefits that may apply to your situation as a new parent.

9. Check in with Uncle Sam: You can claim a tax credit of $1,000 for your new baby and take an annual tax deduction of $3,950 for each dependent child. You can also receive tax credits if you adopt a child and/or if you pay for child care. You should review your withholding status, which could mean that more take-home money is available to increase your emergency fund every month, for instance. Single parents may be able to claim head-of-household status.

10. Start saving for college: Set up a 529 savings account, which generally is not subject to federal and state taxes if used to pay for college tuition. (If the funds are used for other purposes, earnings may be subject to a 10 percent federal tax penalty.) Details on fees and other aspects of the 529 plans vary by state, so do your research.

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Retirement does not always go the way people expect. While no two experiences are exactly the same, over time it seems that people’s financial situations in retirement tend to fall into one of a few distinct categories.

As you think ahead to how you want your retirement to go, keep the following categories in mind. They offer useful examples of what to avoid and what you might want to emulate.

1. Keeping up appearances.

Even though people tend to think of their finances as personal business, their wealth is often presented to the outside world in a variety of ways. While you probably won’t walk around sharing the latest information on your savings account balance with everyone, the car you drive, the house you live in, and the clothes you wear all provide clues as to your financial well-being, even if you don’t think of yourself as particularly status conscious.

Unfortunately, the public face of wealth can create a form of pressure that leads to poor financial decisions. One reason people sometimes spend beyond their means is to keep up public appearances — whether that entails trying to compete with friends and neighbors or trying to maintain a prior standard that you can no longer afford.

Another example of how trying to keep up appearances can be a distorting influence is that breadwinners often want to spare their spouses and children from any financial anxiety. Thus, they may hide any financial setbacks or be reluctant to admit the true limitations of their incomes. As a result, family members conduct themselves on the assumption that they can afford more than is actually the case, when they could be playing important roles in trying to economize if they knew the truth.

People can be particularly vulnerable to these behaviors in retirement, when not having wage income makes a financial reversal more difficult to overcome. Taking pride in your financial well-being is understandable; but remember that the longer you maintain an inflated illusion of your wealth, the worse the blow to your pride will be when the truth finally does come out.

2. Gambling and losing.

People in retirement are heavily dependent on the success of their investments, and this leads some people to take dangerous risks in order to try to improve their financial status.

Especially now, with savings account and CD rates so low, people are resorting to riskier investments to try to earn a decent rate of return. Earning next to nothing in a deposit account may be frustrating, but it’s not as frustrating as suffering damaging losses.

Some element of investment risk is necessary to earn the growth necessary to stay ahead of inflation, but don’t make investments without being fully cognizant of their downsides. Risk management is critical in retirement because drawing money out of your accounts to live on can amplify the impact of downturns, and your near-term spending needs mean that you don’t have as much time to recover from losses as when you were still working.

3. Downsizing.

Some people are able to afford retirement because they downsize many aspects of their lifestyle — smaller house, fewer dependents, less entertainment, etc. This need not be a matter of financial necessity. Often, a simpler lifestyle can be appealing to people in their later years.

One caution about planning on downsizing in retirement is to make sure you properly account for what your specific expenses will be, rather than just blindly assuming you’ll be able to live on a fraction of the money you needed when you were working. Also, remember that health care can grow to be a huge expense in retirement, especially if you have to move into a managed care facility.

4. Second careers.

Another way of affording retirement is to keep some income coming in via a second career. Some people do this out of necessity because they do not have enough money for retirement, but in many cases people like to keep working because it occupies their time and makes them feel useful.

Semi-retirement can be a perfect way to take things a little easier without completely withdrawing from the working world. As a retirement funding strategy though, don’t assume you will be able to keep working for as long as you want. Health issues or dated skill sets can make it harder to continue working as you grow older.

5. Conservation.

Ultimately, retirement is about conservation of your financial resources — making sure that what you have can be stretched to last over the remainder of your life. The problem is, no matter how carefully you plan ahead, there are some things you just cannot know in advance. Unexpected expenses, substandard investment returns, and your longevity can all make it more difficult to make your money last.

The answer is that conservation of financial resources requires frequent adjustments. Rather than being a course you can set and forget, managing your finances requires regularly refreshing your plan to see how the latest information on your financial status affects how much you can afford.

Planning for retirement

Retirement is not defined solely by finances. How you choose to occupy your time and whom you spend that time with are critical factors in post-career happiness. However, it cannot be denied that money is also a big influence on that happiness. For one thing, it dictates your level of comfort and the number of options you have. More than that, though, there is the psychological impact of having to live with the consequences of decisions you made throughout your career and beyond.

A lot goes into this. As you think back in retirement, you may be able to trace your financial condition all the way back to decisions you made about your education, and then to the effort you put into your career, how sensible your spending was, and how wise an investor you were. You might not always have made the right choices, but psychologically the important thing is to be able to look back on those decisions without regret. Being able to do that begins today, by putting care and discipline into decisions you make about your finances.

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6 Ways Your Bank is Ripping You Off

by Richard Barrington

The Occupy Wall Street movement seems to have faded away, but it is fair to say that banks are still not very popular institutions. Fairly or unfairly, the prevailing impression many folks have is that bankers are fat cats who make their fortunes at the expense of ordinary people. However, instead of being mad at ... Continue reading this article…

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Why Lending Rates Can’t Stay Low Forever

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For an organization that keeps announcing it hasn’t made a decision yet, the Federal Reserve sure gets a lot of media attention. And yes, the discussion of when and if the Fed is going to raise interest rates can get a little tedious, but it still probably deserves some of your attention because interest rates ... Continue reading this article…

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Hurry While Discover’s® Double Miles Deal Lasts

by Curtis Arnold

Whether you’re planning a very special trip next year or just travel a lot, there’s currently a limited-time offer you really ought to think seriously about. The Discover it® Miles-Double Miles your first year card is effectively offering double miles for the first year after new cardholders (but not existing ones) open their accounts. Here’s ... Continue reading this article…

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Metrics for your household finances

by Richard Barrington

It’s the heart of the baseball season and, whereas 20 years ago talk about the sport would have centered on the All-Star Game, the trade deadline, and how the pennant races were shaping up, now the chatter is filled with terms like “Wins Above Replacement” and “Defense-Independent ERA.” For better or worse, advanced metrics have ... Continue reading this article…

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Thank You: Twelve Years of Consumerism Commentary

by Luke Landes
Original Consumerism Commentary

Thank you to Consumerism Commentary readers.

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Life Is Short: Toxic Financial Attitudes

by Luke Landes
Drinks on beach

There’s a good reason I can’t get into extreme savings for retirement. When desperate financial times call for desperate financial measures, there is a good incentive to cut all unnecessary spending and eliminate bad debt. Many people even wait until they hit rock bottom before reforming their approach to their finances, because the effects of ... Continue reading this article…

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