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avatar You are viewing an archive of articles by Stephanie Colestock. Stephanie is the managing editor at Consumerism Commentary, as well as a contributing writer. She graduated from Baylor University with a Biology degree, but has since found a passion for personal finance. She also writes for a number of other sites -- including Dough Roller, Five Cent Nickel, and allCards -- in addition to running her small business, Pink Orchid Press. Stephanie lives in Washington, DC with her two sons and a German Shepherd.

Stephanie Colestock

There are over 44 million Americans currently receiving SNAP benefits, better known as food stamps. This financial assistance was designed to provide nutritious food to qualifying citizens, and about 54% of beneficiaries are children and the elderly.

However, there are a number of struggles that SNAP recipients can face as far as actually spending these funds. The elderly and those without reliable transportation can have trouble getting to the grocery store. Even worse, some areas of the country are considered “food deserts,” and residents there are forced to choose from limited options at small convenience stores or sometimes travel hours just to reach a true grocery store. So, even though those in poverty are having a portion of their food costs subsidized, they can’t actually get their groceries without an inordinate amount of effort.

Enter Amazon?

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The Retailers

Last month, it was announced that web giant Amazon — along with six other online grocery retailers — will begin accepting food stamps this coming summer. This is part of a USDA pilot program, aimed at making food more accessible and more affordable for those receiving benefits.

Of the online food providers included in the program, Amazon is by and large the biggest. The retail giant offers dry and fresh goods through its Amazon Pantry, Amazon Prime Now, and Amazon Fresh options.

The other retailers include Safeway, Hy-Vee, Hart’s Local Grocers, ShopRite, and Dash’s Market.  Between these, recipients from seven states will benefit from the program: Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Washington, Iowa, and Oregon.

Potential Problems

Though actual food “stamps” are now obsolete and benefits are distributed onto debit-esque cards, it is the first time that SNAP benefits have ever been accepted online. Of course, this opens the door even wider to the possibility of stamp fraud, or even simply questionable use. In fact, the USDA found that over $1.3 billion was spent on junk food in 2011… these purchases include soda/sweetened drinks (these alone accounted for $600 million, in fact), desserts, candy, sugar, and salty snacks. Of course, this is not the purpose of the government-funded program, and calls into question its efficacy.

This also raises the concern of conflicts of interest, by allowing large corporations to profit from poverty and the state programs that support it. For example, J.P. Morgan provides EBT (electronic benefits transaction) services for 24 different states and their food stamp programs. Since 2004, 18 of these states have contracted the bank’s services, for a total bill of over $560 million. This provides quite an incentive for these banks and other companies to participate in such government programs.

Rolling Out Soon

The trial program will begin in July and initially run for a two-year period. SNAP recipients in the seven states mentioned above (Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Washington, Iowa, and Oregon) can take advantage of online ordering, through Amazon or the other providers. There are plans to expand the program further down the line, potentially adding retailers like Walmart to the list.

It will be interesting to see how well the program runs, and its ability to bring fresh, healthy foods to those who cannot easily access them otherwise. I am also curious to see whether or not the benefits are abused more than they are at-present. However, I am optimistic that the use of an online purchasing system will allow for increased monitoring and will prevent some of the current fraud issues. I hope to see those in food deserts, or without transportation , improve their ability to source nutritional options.

What do you think about being able to use food stamps online?

 

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If you’ve been paying attention to financial news, you’ve probably heard mention of the fiduciary rule. This rule was approved last year under the Obama administration, with the goal of increasing transparency within the investment realm. It was designed to force advisors to suggest investment products to their clients that were more affordable, rather than being able to suggest ones that instead provided these advisors with higher commissions.

While the rule has not yet been implemented (it was slated to go into play this April), it looks like its run may be short-lived. Today, President Trump signed an executive order that is likely to halt the implementation of the rule, along with ordering a widespread review of the Dodd-Frank Act.

fiduciary rule

This has many up in arms, as the fiduciary rule seems to be a matter of common sense and integrity. Forcing ALL advisors to offer their clients less expensive investment products, rather than higher priced ones that may result in bigger commissions, seems like a great idea. Transparency throughout any industry should be mandatory… so why nix the rule?

Yes, There Is Already a Fiduciary Obligation…

For almost 80 years, a fiduciary obligation — called the fiduciary standard — has been in place. This was implemented with the Investment Advisors Act of 1940, intended to affect most types of investment accounts. This standard implements an expectation that advisors need to place their client’s interests ahead of their own. The advisor is always supposed to act in the best interests of their clients, in every situation, whether the client is aware of it or not.

The reach of this standard is far and wide. An advisor cannot, for example, make trades on a client’s behalf that would result in higher commissions or fees for himself or his firm. An advisor is supposed to make all efforts to ensure that the investment advice given is not only accurate, but complete. They are bound to a “best execution” standard, while dictates that the purchase and sale of securities should be completed with the best possible combination of low cost and efficiency. Advisors are also prohibited from buying securities for themselves before they buy them (or advise their purchase) for their client.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the existing fiduciary standard already prohibits the potential of conflicts of interest. In fact, if a potential conflict of interest is present, the advisor must disclose this to the client before any trades take place. Which begs the question…

Then, What Would the Fiduciary Rule Even Change?

As mentioned, the fiduciary standard already has provisions to avoid and prohibit conflicts of interest between advisors and their clients. This is, of course, the heart of the fiduciary rule… so why the new implementation?

Well, the difference primarily lies in the types of retirement account providers to which the existing rule applied.

As it stands today, the fiduciary standard does not technically apply to insurance reps, broker-dealers, and financial company reps (other than investment advisors). These individuals, instead, are bound by the suitability standard.

The suitability standard is much simpler and much less comprehensive. In a nutshell, it says that an advisor only needs to assess a client’s risk and tolerance before offering investment products and advice. Essentially, gathering a client’s preferences is enough, as long as the products the advisor subsequently recommends match those preferences. This opens up the possibility of a very large grey area… if an advisor simply believes that a product suits a client’s risk tolerance, it’s fair game.

The new rule, though, would make sure that everyone was bound to the fiduciary guidelines. Rather than having the freedom to pick financial products that simple lie below a client’s threshold, all advisors would need to first disclose the fees, limitations, conflicts of interest, etc. of the product. As of now, just the designated investment advisors are bound to such. The fiduciary rule simply hoped to expand this rule to anyone and everyone offering any sort of investment-related advice.

Why It’s Happening

Well, the argument seems to be that the fiduciary rule could actually harm many of the lower-income investors out there, in a number of ways. First, it would prevent advisors from recommending more expensive investment products to their clients when lower priced alternatives exist — even if the higher priced ones were a better match in the end.

Forcing advisors to be transparent about fees and compensation sounds like a great idea, unless the client then chooses their investment product based on this information alone. If an advisor puts three different funds in front of a client, with one having a noticeably higher rate of commission, the client is less likely to lean toward that fund. But what if it had a good chance of outperforming the others? To combat this, potential investors would need to take into account all components of a financial product, not just seek to avoid fees where they could.

Does limiting suggestions to lower cost financial products actually harm the client? Could narrowing their options actually be taking away their investment freedom, causing harm in the long run? Some fiduciary rule-protesters think so.

Another way that this rule could harm lower-income investors is through financial advisor services. Today, some companies are able to offer free or low-cost investment advice to their customers. The new regulations threaten to increase their fees for providing such, resulting in some of the smaller savers being denied advice or simply being unable to afford it.

The Impacts Overall

The fiduciary rule has also been challenged as detrimental to the smaller firms and dealer-brokers in the industry. The cost of compliance with the rule is expected to be high, with additional technology and compliance experts being an added, necessary investment.

As a result, we could expect to see many of these companies disband or be acquired. It’s actually already being seen, in the case of American International Group and MetLife Inc. brokerage operations. Both of these have already been sold off in anticipation of the fiduciary rule’s April 10 implementation date.

What does this really mean, though? Less diversity in the industry, for starters, as the independent companies disappear. Also, as the consolidation continues, it threatens to eliminate (or make difficult to find) advisors who will be able to offer smaller plans. Once again, this has the potential to greatly impact the lower-income investors.

It’s interesting to note that when the United Kingdom implemented a similar rule in 2011, their investment industry had exactly this response. Independent companies could not keep up or could not afford to comply with the technology and changes required. So, they forged paths with larger corporations. As a result, the number of financial advisors in the U.K. has dropped by a whopping 22.5% ever since, creating an even bigger guidance gap than had previously existed.

This effect makes it easy to see why the fiduciary rule has been referred to as “Obamacare for your IRA.” While the rule is necessary and important in many ways, its impact of narrowing the advisor industry down to fewer and fewer options is certainly a check mark in the negative column. Having options and healthy competition between companies is generally a big benefit for consumers.

All Hope Is Not Lost

For proponents of the fiduciary rule who are appalled to see its (likely) overturn today, I have some good news. Many of the financial services companies that were slated to be impacted by its April roll out are going to move forward with their new standards. They had already put new changes in place and believe that transparency is an important part of the advisor-investor relationship.

Companies like Morgan Stanley and LPL Financial Holdings, Inc. have both said that they still plan to move forward with the new standards that they have already worked to create. Hopefully, this idea of working in the best interest of the customer catches on and spreads, on its own, throughout the industry.

Until then, we wait and see.

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If you are a homeowner or have looked at buying a home in the near future, you probably know all about conforming loans. While the limits for these types of loans have remained stagnant for the past decade, steady increases in the housing marking have prompted this ceiling to rise for the first time since 2006. Beginning next year, a wider range of borrowers will now be able to access these types of loans. Rather than being limited to $417,000, conforming loans will now have an increased limit of $424,100 in 2017.

What is a Conforming Loan?

In the United States, mortgage loans are categorized based on whether they do, or do not, conform to the standards set for by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. One of these standards is the cost of the home. In order for a mortgage to be considered “conforming” – and be eligible for lower interest rates – it needs to be below the conforming loan limit.

Until this new change was announced for 2017, the conforming loan limit was set at $417,000 for many years. While a jump up to $424,100 isn’t an astronomical difference, it opens the homebuying door to many people who wouldn’t have otherwise been able to qualify for a lower risk, conforming loan.

If you want to buy a home that crosses this conforming limit threshold, your loan is considered non-conforming or jumbo. While these loans are certainly still available, they are considered much riskier to lenders and therefore are harder to obtain. Also, they typically involve higher down payments and a more intense scrutinization of your credit history and/or income. Because of this, they are seen more often with luxury homes, investment properties, or retail spaces.

Conforming loan limits vary by county, as it is relative to the cost of living in that area. The Federal Housing Administration is responsible for setting the national conforming loan limit (which is what will be increased for 2017), but some counties are deemed eve higher cost. As such, they have special higher limits.

In my county, for instance, the conforming loan limit is at the absolute max of $636,150 —  a whopping $212,050 above the standard national limit. Then again, the cost of living where I live is astronomical (Washington, DC area) and home prices stay high, so it makes sense that certain counties are able to get higher loans. If you want to check the conforming loan limits in your own county, Bankrate has a great chart that you can view.

conforming-map

What Does the Increased Limit Mean for Me?

If you are looking at buying a home that was toeing the $420,000 range, this increase may mean the difference between a basic loan and a jumbo loan for you. That equates to a lower down payment, greater chance of approval, and less headache.

Planning to buy your home with a VA loan? You would be obligated to purchase within the conforming limits of your county. A jumbo loan isn’t even an option with these (and other) government-backed mortgages, so the increase may open a few extra doors while finding the home of your dreams.

Why the Increase?

It’s a great indicator of the health and growth of our country’s housing market, that the limit is rising. After the US housing crash in 2007-2008, home costs are on the rise and expected to continue to grow. This is great news for our economy and for anyone whose money is invested in real estate, whether that be their home, rental properties, REITs, etc.

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While the cost of your home isn’t the only limiting factor between your mortgage being “conforming” or “non-conforming,” it’s a big part of it. Non-conforming, or jumbo, mortgages are harder to obtain and often involve more stringent credit/income guidelines, an intense application process, and higher down payments.

If you’re looking at a government-backed mortgage of any kind, you will need to stay within the conforming mortgage loan limits set forth by the FHA. Beginning in 2017, you’ll get a little extra wiggle room. Be sure to check for the actual limit in your county, especially if you live in a high cost area, and happy buying!

Have you ever had to walk away from a dream home because it would have meant a non-conforming loan?

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At some point in your life, you’ve talked about your credit score. In fact, you’ve probably talked about it many, many times. What it is, how to improve it, how much you paid to get it… But what if I told you that “it” is really just one of dozens of potential scores out there, all based on your credit history?

That’s right: you don’t have just one credit score.

The variance in your score can depend on when you acquire your score, who you choose to calculate your score, and even what you want to do with your score (get an auto loan or bankcard, for example). Some lenders may use a standard scoring model, but alter the formula to suit their lending needs. Others may even take two or more scores and create an average. So you see, the results are almost endless.

Why Do You Have a Credit Score Anyway?

Credit scores are used by lenders as a way to determine your creditworthiness. Essentially, they want to know: how likely are you to pay back your debts, if they were to lend you some money in the form of a mortgage, car loan, or line of credit?

Resource: How to Get Your Credit Score for Free

This is calculated using a number of historical predictors. How long have you held lines of credit? Have you ever paid late and, if so, just how late were you? How much available credit have other lenders given you and, of that, how much have you already used up? How often do you apply for new credit?

While these may not be completely perfect ways of deciding whether you’ll pay your debts in a timely fashion, most lenders seem to think that they’re a good place to start.

Different lenders look at different scoring models, depending on what they deem to be the most important determining factor. Since each scoring model is weighted differently and has a unique range, they can all tell a different story.

The Main Scores

While there are dozens of credit scores that could be created based on your unique credit history, there are a couple main players in the game. These are FICO® and VantageScore.

FICO®, short for the Fair Isaac Corporation, has been the most trusted name in credit scoring for almost three decades. They have released nine different scoring versions thus far, as well as industry-specific scoring models such as Auto and Bankcard. Their FICO® 8 formula is by far the most popular and most utilized version around. They have released a newer version, the FICO® Score 9. However, the vast majority of lenders still seem to prefer the version 8, at least for the time being.

The other big fish in the credit score pond is VantageScore.  They have released three versions to date, currently on VantageScore 3.0.  As with FICO®, they also offer industry-specific scoring formulas and, as with FICO® again, lenders may choose to utilize their earlier models when calculating your credit score.

The Small Fish

As mentioned, each of the two companies above also offer industry-specific models, in addition to their basic scoring calculations. VantageScore and FICO® have special calculations for things like auto loans or if you’re seeking a new bank credit card, which are different from their standard models.

Learn More: Manage Your Finances with Personal Capital

You also have unique calculations that are created by each of the three credit reporting bureaus: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. Since some lenders will only report credit-related items (such as late payments, inquiries, and collections) to one or two bureaus, your history can vary greatly between the three. Your report — and therefore, your score — may be entirely different between each of the bureaus, simply because your lenders are reporting selectively.

This is also why it is important to obtain all three credit reports at least once a year (this is free!). That way, you can ensure that there are no errors being reporting to one of the bureaus, which you may have missed if you only chose to get one of the other bureaus’ reports.

Why Are They So Different?

What makes all of these scores so very different from one another, even if they receive the same information? Well, it all comes down to what they deem to be most important.

Take the FICO 8 compared with the newer FICO Score 9, for example. Even though the FICO 8 is expected to remain the most popular model for at least a while longer, the FICO 9 would actually benefit most consumers more.

This is because the FICO 9 takes into consideration things that are issues among Americans today. For example, student loan debt combined with rising housing costs and a tough job economy mean that we have more adults renting homes than ever. So, on the new FICO® scoring model, it will take into account rental payment history (if your landlord chooses to report it).

We also live in a time when 26% of Americans say they’ve had trouble paying medical bills in the past year, to the extent of being detrimental to their personal finances. If a patient cannot pay an unexpected medical charge right away, these bills will often get sent to collections. Even if they end up paying this bill soon thereafter, it will still remain on their credit history as a negative report – for seven years!

Related: The Correct Way to Pay Off Personal Debt

Well, the new FICO® takes this into account. It prefers to take the common sense view that medical bills are rarely planned. Even if a person is late to pay them off, it probably doesn’t indicate that they are not creditworthy. Hospital bills can be sudden and unavoidable – a heart attack is very different from an unpaid Best Buy credit card or a repossessed convertible.  So, the FICO 9 actually does not factor any paid collection accounts into its scoring model.

The Difference Between Bad Credit and Good Credit

We all know the general rule: bad credit = higher interest rates, secured credit cards, denied lines of credit, etc. Meanwhile, good credit = low (or 0%) interest rates, credit limits out the wazoo, credit cards with excellent perks. Obviously, the goal should be to improve your credit as much as possible.

So, what exactly qualifies as “good” or “bad” credit? Well, that depends on exactly which scoring model you use, but there is a general range. Since FICO is the most widely referenced credit score out there, it makes for a good standard.

The FICO score ranges anywhere from 300 to 850, with the lower scores being the worst. Where you fall in that range will be determined by your open accounts, debts, and payment histories, among others. It will also depend on whether your lender pulls the FICO version 8 or 9. Either way, your score will be classified as Bad, Poor, Fair, Good, and Excellent. While the guideline below exists, keep in mine that some lenders may even set their own ranges, and decide what they deem to be “good” or “bad” credit. But in general:

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As mentioned above, this is the range for basic FICO scores (300 to 850). But some of the other companies out there choose to alter this range slightly in either direction. Even FICO has a different score range for its industry-specific models, which extends from 250 to 900. This can affect how different scores are actually categorized (bad, good, etc.), so keep that in mind when pulling your own. Here are a few of the more common calculation ranges:

ranges

How Do I Watch My Score?

As I’ve mentioned, choosing different companies will result in a different credit score. This is why, if you’re looking to watch your score over time, you should pick one or two scores. Then, only track those. Don’t compare between other models, just simply track the one (or two) that you pick. (Personally, I prefer tracking my free score through Credit Sesame, as well as one directly from Equifax.)

You have the issue of each model using a slightly different calculation. The possibility of each credit bureau receiving slightly different information, from which they base their score. Oh, and lenders creating their own unique calculations or simply averaging scores.

On top of that, though, your score can also fluctuate depending on when you check it. Since credit utilization is a nice chunk of each scoring model, the score calculated can be different based on where in your credit card cycle you may be.

Do you rack up the charges each month to earn cash back rewards, but pay it off in full after each billing cycle? If so, you’re still being smart about your credit. However, if you check your credit score at a time when you’re using maybe 70 or 80% of your credit limit (right before a billing cycle closes), it will be much different than if you check it right after paying a statement balance in full (with a 0% utilization).

In Summary

So, now you know that when you talk about your “credit score,” you actually mean any one of dozens of potential scores, all based on your credit history. While you can’t track every credit score that’s out there, you can pick one or two. Then, track and keep a close eye on them over time. This will be a good barometer for you as to how your credit is doing as you go along.

Ouch… 10 Purchases That Can Actually Harm Your Credit

You also can’t choose which of these numerous score options a lender will pull. So, your best bet is to try to improve your credit in as many ways as possible. Pay your bills on time, try to use less than 30% of your available credit, don’t hold balances on credit cards, increase your credit limits, and be cognizant of the number of inquiries you receive in a given year.

That way, no matter which score you — or your lender — choose to pull, you’ll be good to go!

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Today is the Day to Finish Your Gift-Buying… It’s Free Shipping Day!

by Stephanie Colestock

Well, we’re less than two weeks from Christmas, which means the shopping pinch is upon us. If you’re like me, you’re probably nowhere near done with your Christmas shopping – still have three people to shop for, and we are coming down to the wire. This year, though, I’m avoiding that last-minute, mad dash at […]

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A Penny Saved is $1,000 Earned

by Stephanie Colestock

Are you the type of person who picks up coins on the street? Even pennies? Well, I’d encourage you to step up the habit — and the rest of you may want to take up this hobby, at least for the next few weeks. Ally Bank has a fun scavenger hunt promotion going on right […]

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Trump’s Childcare Plan: How the DCSA Will Affect You

by Stephanie Colestock

Whether you’re taking care of multiple children, a disabled spouse, or elderly parents, you’ve likely experienced the high cost of dependent care firsthand. With expenses from babysitters to after school programs, it can be difficult to stay ahead of all your other financial obligations while spending on dependent care. To help make dependent care more […]

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Today’s Best Bank Deals, Promotions, and Bonuses

by Stephanie Colestock
bank-deals

When opening a bank account, there are a few things you should be looking for: low (or no) fees, the highest interest rates possible, and promotional bonus offers. With the latter, you can often score free money without doing anything extra, which is a win in my book. After all, promotional bonus cash is better […]

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2017 Federal Income Tax Brackets and Marginal Rates

by Stephanie Colestock

As tax year 2016 comes to a close, your focus is probably on filing that tax return after the new year (remember that your deadline is April 17, 2017). The IRS may end up confusing some people, though, as they just released the tax brackets, deduction limits, and marginal rates for tax year 2017. Keep […]

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Fidelity Study Finds Millennials are Moving Back Home in Droves

by Stephanie Colestock
milennials-1

Ah, millennials. They are the first generation to grow up with iPhones, FaceTime, and GPS apps. Most of their banking is done online and, thanks to Amazon, the majority of web purchases arrive at their doorstep within 2 business days. They hit the generational jackpot when it comes to convenience and ease, it would seem. […]

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