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Aliyyah Camp

Budgeting doesn’t come naturally for everyone. Some of us need a little assistance with tracking our income and spending. That’s where budgeting tools come in.

There are several front runners in this space. Many of them offer a wide range of features to help you manage your money better. Here are four of the best budgeting tools that we’ve found:

Personal Capital

Personal Capital is a money management tool that tracks your investments and other financial accounts. What’s great about Personal Capital is that it’s an all-in-one tool. Not only can you track things like your net worth and portfolio balances, but you can also get down to the nitty gritty details of your budget.

After you link your financial accounts by logging into them through the Personal Capital website, you’ll see different charts on the main dashboard. One of those is a cash flow chart. This chart shows you your income and spending for the last 30 days — a quick glance at your budget details.

Personal-capital-cash-flow-spending

Simply click the chart to be brought to another page. Here, it will show you the details of your budget. You’ll see where your income is coming from, and where you’re spending money.

Personal Capital is free to use, but it charges a fee for optional wealth management services for people with investment portfolios worth over $1 million.

Mint

Mint has long been considered the gold standard for budgeting tools. Between its website and mobile app, Mint gives users the ability to see their money activity in real time. Much like Personal Capital, Mint syncs all of your financial accounts into one dashboard. From there, you can see your spending categories, investment balances, and upcoming bills.

Mint-Review

What’s unique about Mint is that it also offers a free credit score. You’ll see the number on your dashboard every time you log in, and your score is updated every three months. Although there are plenty of websites offering free credit scores these days, Mint makes it easy to keep all your financial data in one place and avoid having to log in to multiple websites.

Mint is free to use. You’ll receive financial product recommendations for things like credit cards and savings accounts, based on your profile.

Learn More: Mint vs Personal Capital

You Need a Budget (YNAB)

You Need a Budget (YNAB) is a premium budgeting tool for the more involved users. The latest update included direct import, which allows users to sync their bank accounts with YNAB and have transactions imported automatically rather than manually. Despite this, users still have to manually categorize each expense, which can be a benefit to some because it creates more awareness of spending.

YNAB

What sets You Need A Budget apart from other budgeting tools is its comprehensive knowledge base. Users can sign up for free 30 minute online workshops on topics ranging from credit to debt. YNAB has a podcast with over 250 budgeting episodes and a YouTube channel that features weekly tutorial videos.

YNAB comes at a cost of $50 per year. This price tag may deter some users who aren’t looking to add another bill to their budget. However, YNAB’s website claims that new budgeters save on average $200 their first month, making the investment in the budgeting tool worth it. You can try out YNAB on a free trial for 34 days.

Good Ol’ Spreadsheet

Let’s not forget about the good ol’ spreadsheet for budgeting. Years ago, before online budgeting tools were popular, many people who budgeted simply tracked their income and spending in spreadsheets. It definitely takes more manual work and time than simply syncing your accounts on a financial aggregator. But the awareness you create when you update the budget spreadsheet yourself can be enough to get you out of bad spending habits and reach your savings goals.

You can grab a free budget template online with a simple Google search. If you have Microsoft Office, the program also includes free budget templates for Excel.

Stay On Track: 10 Guardrails to Help You Reach Financial Freedom

Final Thoughts

When choosing an online budgeting tool, it’s important to make sure the website is secure. The three online budgeting tools mentioned in this article (Personal Capital, Mint, and YNAB) have all been vetted for proper security protocols. Another benefit of using a spreadsheet for your budget is that you avoid giving external websites access to your financial accounts.

No matter how you choose to track your income and spending, the important thing is that you do it, especially if you are trying to save or get out of debt. Being aware of where your money goes, and knowing how to cut expenses, is a great first step toward financial freedom.

What’s your favorite way to budget?

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Whether or not you should pay more for quality is a decision that comes up often when shopping. The answer varies depending on the product.For some purchases, paying more is a giant waste of money which would be better spent elsewhere. For other items, it’s well worth the additional investment up front to ensure a quality product that lasts. So, how do you decide?

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This question could be asked of virtually any purchase, so we can’t cover them all. However, here are seven examples of popular purchases and our verdict on whether it makes sense to pay more for quality:

Cars: Pay More for Quality

When it comes to buying a car, especially a used car, going with the cheapest option could be a big mistake. There are plenty of stories of people who bought used cars thinking they were getting a deal, only to discover the car needed costly repairs. Although state “lemon laws” exist to protect consumers in situations like those, you may not discover the car’s problems right away. Ultimately, you could be left with a vehicle that costs you more than expected.

It’s worth it to pay more for a quality car that has a clean history and is up-to-date in its maintenance. Buying cheap will likely cost you more in the long run. A completely new car might be out-of-budget for many people (and isn’t the best idea from a personal finance standpoint, anyway!). Buying a late model used car can be just as good as new, though, and you’ll likely be able to extend the warranty on it.

Homes: Pay More for Quality

Things like location and square footage are important factors to consider when purchasing a home. These shouldn’t be overlooked solely for the sake of price.

Unlike an ugly kitchen that can be remodeled, the big concerns will be difficult (or impossible) to change later on. Buying a home that’s in a bad neighborhood or is too small for your family can make you incredibly dissatisfied after a while. Turning around and selling the home too soon after buying is not only a headache, but can also make you lose money.

Learn as much as you can about the homes you’re considering for purchase. If you don’t find the ideal place right away, that’s absolutely fine. House hunting can take months before you find the right property for you and your family.

Smartphones: Don’t Pay More for Quality

You’re probably familiar with absurdly high-priced smartphones like the Apple iPhone or Samsung Galaxy S series. With these phones costing $500 and up, many consumers opt for payment plans. They have a monthly installment added to their cell phone bills in order to even afford the device.

However, if you want a high-functioning smartphone, a $500+ device isn’t your only option. There are competitors who make comparable smartphones that come with top of the line specs as well. For example, the ZTE Axon 7 will cost you about $400 and comes with a sharp camera, generous storage, and an attractive design. Another example is the Moto G4 Plus, which costs $299. It comes with an HD display and a long battery life.

Part of the reason high-priced smartphones are so popular is because they’re seen as a status symbol. If you’re just looking for a reliable smartphone, you can definitely forego the brand name and still get good quality.

Mattresses: Pay More for Quality

You go to sleep on a bed every night. Why not pay a little more to ensure your mattress is comfortable?

Getting a mattress that’s made from durable and high-quality materials can make a big difference in how well you sleep and how pleasant your body feels. Whether you choose a bouncy innerspring mattress or a firm memory foam mattress, you usually get what you pay for in terms of quality. A good mattress can last up to 10 years. But a poor quality one could have broken springs or stagnant memory foam after just a couple of years.

Mattresses can cost thousands of dollars. But you don’t have to pay that price. Department stores like Macy’s have sales throughout the year that can save you a considerable amount of money on such a large purchase. Be sure to also shop around at local mom & pop stores near holiday weekends (like Labor Day), as many of them will be willing to negotiate the price with you.

Walking/Running Shoes: Pay More for Quality

Foot health is important, but often overlooked. Many see foot pain as unavoidable and as something you just have to deal with when you’ve been on your feet for long periods of time. However, that doesn’t have to be the case. High quality walking/running shoes can not only prevent foot pain, but can also support your soles and offer breathability.

Although high quality walking/running shoes offer better support, they do experience wear and tear just as any other pair of shoes would. If you use them daily, it’s recommended to replace them about every six months. This may come as a large expense to you if you’re not used to buying top of the line shoes or replacing them that often. But it’s worth it if it means preventing pain and promoting good foot health.

Batteries: Pay More for Quality

If you have small children with lots of electronic toys or otherwise use electronics often, you know how important it is to have long-lasting batteries. Dollar store batteries just don’t hold up to the trusted brands, Duracell and Energizer. In fact, some electronics specifically call for high-quality batteries in order to function properly. I’ve experienced this with my digital camera.

If you look at some dollar store battery packages, you’ll even see recommended purposes for the batteries. The recommendations are usually for low-drain devices like alarm clocks or television remotes. When it comes to high-drain devices, like a video game remote control or a digital camera, you’ll want to pay more for high-quality batteries.

Sunglasses: Don’t Pay More for Quality

Sunglasses are eyewear that protect your eyes from the ultraviolet (UV) rays in sunlight. There are two types of UV rays: UVA and UVB. As long as your sunglasses protect from both types of UV rays, you don’t have to worry about the price of them. Beyond that, you often pay more for style. Just look for the sticker that indicates the UVA/UVB protection. It might also say “100% UV protection”, which means the same thing.

Sunglasses, in general, are fragile. To decrease the likelihood of breaking them, try not to keep them in your pockets or hanging from your shirt. The best place for them when they’re not on your face is in a case.

Final Thoughts

There are plenty of times when paying more for quality equals a better product. There are also times when, clearly, it doesn’t. When you’re considering a purchase, really take time to think about and research whether the increase in quality is substantial enough to warrant paying a lot more. This is when it’s important to do things like read online reviews, to further examine your choices.

What other purchases can you think of that warrant paying a bit more for quality… or some that don’t?

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Getting your first credit card is a significant financial milestone. Maybe you’re a college student jumping into personal finance for the first time. Or maybe you’ve just never had a reason to get a credit card before. Regardless, you may be overwhelmed with all the options that are out there.

When it comes to getting your first credit card, I recommend first looking at your spending habits. Then, choose a card that offers the most rewards based on those spending habits. Here are three recommendations for first credit cards: one for general cash back, one for travel rewards, and one for gas rewards. I also discuss secured credit cards and student credit cards for your reference.

First Cash Back Credit Card: Discover it®

Discover it® is a no-fee card that offers plenty of attractive perks. It’s an excellent choice for your first credit card if you’re looking to maximize your cash back rewards right off the bat.

You’ll earn 1% cash back on all credit card purchases and 5% cash back on new bonus categories each quarter. Currently, through December, the bonus categories are for purchases at Amazon.com, select department stores, and Sam’s Club — perfect for holiday shopping! What’s more is that new cardholders will get a “dollar-for-dollar match of all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year.” This makes it the perfect time to sign up for Discover it if you’re looking for your first cash back credit card.

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Other perks include the ability to view your FICO®  score for free each month on your statements. You’ll also have the ability to immediately freeze your account with an on/off switch (online or via the mobile app), should you suspect fraud.

Resource: How to Get Your Credit Report for Free

There’s no annual fee, no fee for your first late payment, no overlimit fee, and no foreign transaction fee. You’ll also pay no interest on purchases made during the first 12 months after opening this credit card.

Learn more about Discover it® in our review of the card.

First Travel Rewards Credit Card: Capital One® Venture® Rewards

The Capital One® Venture® Rewards card is an excellent choice for first-time cardholders who plan to travel a lot. You’ll earn 2 miles for every dollar you spend, regardless of category. One hundred miles is equal to $1 in travel rewards. There’s also a one-time bonus of 40,000 miles (equal to $400 in travel rewards) once you spend $3,000 on the credit card within the first three months of opening it.

In addition to having no foreign transaction fees, this credit card also offers the many perks that come with being a Visa Signature card. These include:

  • Complimentary travel upgrades
  • Complimentary concierge service
  • 24-hour travel assistance services
  • Special access to premier sporting events and concerts
  • Shopping discounts at select online merchants
  • Extended warranty on purchases

There’s an annual fee of $59, which is waived the first year. If you use this card often and take advantage of all the travel rewards, it should easily make up for the annual fee.

The Capital ® Venture® Rewards card is great for young adventurers looking to get the most perks to accompany their travel experiences.

Best First Gas Rewards Credit Card: Barclay Rewards MasterCard®

If you’re a frequent driver, you may be looking for a credit card that offers good gas rewards. The Barclay Rewards MasterCard® is the perfect credit card in this instance. You’ll receive two points for every dollar spent on gas, utility, and grocery store purchases (excluding Target and Walmart). Plus, you’ll receive one point for every dollar spent on everything else.

There’s no limit on the amount of points you earn, and they never expire. You can redeem your points to your bank account, as statement credit, in the form of gift cards, or as cash. There’s also no annual fee.

Another perk of the Barclay Rewards MasterCard® is that you’ll get online access to view your FICO®  score for free. This comes in handy for monitoring your activity, especially if you’re new to building a credit history

If you’re looking for a card that offers general rewards and a higher rewards rate for gas purchases, the Barclay Rewards MasterCard is a good choice for your first credit card.

A Note About Secured Credit Cards

Secured credit cards require you to put down a refundable deposit as collateral. This deposit becomes the credit line for your card. Secured credit cards can help you establish or rebuild your credit history, and are useful if you have no credit or bad credit.

If you’ve been paying off a loan in your name or otherwise have some credit history, you may not need to get a secured credit card before applying for a regular credit card. Regular credit cards tend to offer more attractive perks than secured credit cards.

A Note About Student Credit Cards

Student credit cards are a great option for young people to get their feet wet with credit. I got my first credit card while I was in college and still have that credit card to this day. It’s a Wells Fargo cash back credit card.

Related: Best Credit Cards for College Students

Most credit card issuers offer at least one student credit card. These credit cards are often comparable to their other rewards credit cards but come with a low initial limit. As you establish your creditworthiness by making on-time payments, you’ll likely see your limit increase over time. If you’re in college, I highly recommend starting to build your credit now by getting a student credit card.

Final Thoughts

Getting your first credit card is an exciting time and the process shouldn’t be taken lightly. Which credit card you choose as your first can have a huge impact on your finances. If you choose correctly based on your spending habits, you can reap some great benefits such as travel rewards or cash back.

Once you receive your first credit card, remember to use it wisely. Only make purchases that you can afford to pay in full when the bill comes. Try to keep your credit utilization ratio low by not using more 30% of your credit card balance at any given time. Above all, enjoy the many perks that come with being a cardholder.

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If you plan to retire early, you may be wondering whether it makes sense to invest in traditional retirement accounts, such as employer-sponsored 401(k)s/403(b)s and IRAs/Roth IRAs. The speculation comes into play because there’s an early withdrawal penalty when you take money out of these accounts before age 59 ½.

I argue that it’s still a good idea to invest in traditional retirement accounts if you plan to retire early. This is because there are tax benefits that come with these retirement plans. Money contributed to employer sponsored 401(k)s/403(b)s are pre-tax and reduce your taxable income for the year. Money contributed to Roth IRAs isn’t pre-tax but the money grows tax-free.

The best scenario is to have enough money outside of these retirement accounts so that you can live off other investments before age 59 ½ and then tap into your retirement accounts after turning 59 ½. Here are a few tips to aid you in your early retirement planning.

Avoid Early Withdrawal Penalties

Generally, the money withdrawn from a retirement plan before the age of 59 ½ is considered “early” or “premature.” When this happens, you must pay an additional 10% early withdrawal tax. For most, that 10% penalty is a big deal. It will likely result in enough money lost that you’ll want to avoid making early withdrawals.

One thing you can do to avoid early withdrawal penalties from retirement plans is to have other investments. We’ll get to that in a moment.

Another way to avoid early withdrawal penalties is via the IRS rule 72(t). This rule permits penalty-free withdrawals from an individual retirement account (IRA), provided that you take “substantially equal periodic payments (SEPPs)” for at least five years or until you reach 59 ½, whichever period of time is longer. The payment amount will depend on your life expectancy as calculated by IRS-approved methods.

The withdrawals will still be taxed at your normal income tax rate. You can roll over a portion of your 401(k) into an IRA to take advantage of this rule as well. A good guide for IRA conversion can be found here on Dough Roller.

The IRS rule 72(t) is a bit complicated. You may want to work with a financial advisor to make sure you are complying by the rule’s stipulations. If you stop payments too early, you’ll have to pay the early withdrawal penalty on the previously withdrawn amounts.

It’s good to know there’s a way to access your retirement plan funds without the early withdrawal penalty. But, that doesn’t have to be the only option if you plan to retire early. Another option is to have other investments that you can liquidate before you turn 59 ½.

Plan on Other Investments

The best thing you can do is not touch your retirement plan funds until you reach age 59 ½. It’s best to have other investments that you can use as income until you reach IRS retirement age. This means you’ll have to do even more saving during your early years. But it’s worth it for the sake of early retirement.

Here are some options for where to save the rest of your money:

  • Savings accounts and certificates of deposit (CDs) – These accounts offer lower interest rates but guaranteed returns. Your money is also FDIC insured up to at least $250,000.
  • Peer to peer lending – Companies like LendingClub and Prosper let you build an investment portfolio of personal loans. This gives you monthly cash flow.
  • Rental properties – This investment takes some time and skill. But it also offers monthly cash flow as long as you have tenants.
  • Dividend stocks – You’ll gain money in two ways. First, you’ll earn as the value of the stocks appreciate. Second, you’ll gain money from distributions paid out to shareholders by the dividend-paying companies.

You can use these investments to fund your lifestyle until you reach IRS retirement age. Depending on the age you plan to retire, you may not even need that much to sustain you until you reach 59 ½. It’s all about planning ahead of time.

Consider Phased Retirement

Most people work a long career and then jump right into retirement and stop working altogether. If you plan to retire early, though, that doesn’t necessarily have to be the path for you. Consider phased retirement as an alternative, in order to make early retirement work for you.

For example, if you work an office job now and want to retire at age 40, you can leave that day job and then start another career. You could start an online business that doesn’t require you to go into an office. Use the time between when you leave your first career and when you reach age 59 ½ to explore another one of your interests. Have you always wanted to write books? Do you have a passion for working with animals? The possibilities are endless.

Finding a new career to embark on during the first few years of early retirement will not only give you extra money to live on, but it’ll also keep you mobile and energized. Make sure it’s something you enjoy so you can still consider yourself “retired.”

Final Thoughts

Yes, you should invest in traditional retirement accounts if you plan to retire early. They have many tax benefits that make them good investments. What you want to avoid is early withdrawal penalties. You can avoid this by taking advantage of the IRS rule 72(t) as explained above. Or, you could have other investments that fund your lifestyle until you reach age 59 ½ and can withdraw money from your retirement plans penalty-free.

Another consideration to keep in mind is phased retirement. Although you retire from your day job at an early age, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to work at all. Consider starting a new career based on another one of your interests or passions. This way, you’ll keep some money coming in until you reach age 59 ½ — and can withdraw from the traditional accounts — but you’ll still enjoy your early retirement.

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How to Afford Healthcare in Retirement

by Aliyyah Camp

Retirement is a huge financial undertaking, as we all know. It requires plenty of planning to ensure that all of your needs will be met once your career, and working income, ends. It needs to be able to cover your costs of living, some fun money to actually enjoy your years, and expenses such as […]

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What Does the New iPhone 7 Cost and How Can You Pay Less?

by Aliyyah Camp

On September 7, 2016, Apple unveiled the new iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. Trendsetters will have been eagerly awaiting today, the 16th, when the new iPhones start being shipped; preorders started on the 9th. There is no doubt that this launch will be successful. Apple occupies 40 percent of the smartphone market share — the […]

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