As featured in The Wall Street Journal, Money Magazine, and more!

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

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.

[link]

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?

{ 0 comments }

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:

fico

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!

{ 1 comment }

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 the mall. How? Well, today, I am taking advantage of Free Shipping Day. I am getting all of my Christmas shopping finished once and for all, from the comfort of my couch.

What is Free Shipping Day?

Every December, hundreds of retailers participate in what’s known as Free Shipping Day. This year, it falls on Friday, December 16 (today!). On this day, online shops waive their standard shipping charges, with guarantees that any purchased items will arrive in time for Christmas.

It was founded in 2008 by the same people who brought us CouponSherpa. They noticed that online sales plummeted following Cyber Monday, as most consumers figured that their items might not make it in time for Christmas after that point. Therefore, it seemed that most people switched to in-store shopping for the remainder of their list, if they didn’t buy it on Cyber Monday.

Its founders, Luke and Maisie Knowles, noticed that many online businesses were offering free shipping around the holidays, with much lower qualifying order thresholds. FreeShippingDay.com was a place where they could bring all of these merchants together, and allow the average online consumer to find out who was offering to waive postage for their last-minute shopping.

In 2010, which was the third year that Free Shipping Day was held, online shoppers spent $942 million. This made Free Shopping Day the third highest spending day of the 2010 holiday season. That number continued to grow, even crossing the billion dollar threshold.

Beginning in 2013, the website mandated that all companies participating agree to waive all minimum order requirements, so that every purchase would qualify for free shipping. Of course, they also had to guarantee delivery by Christmas Eve for all orders placed on the promotional day. That year, sales dropped slightly (as some merchants were unable or unwilling to meet both stipulations). However, sales quickly rose back up and Free Shipping Day still hovers around the $1 billion sales mark each year.

So, Who Is Included?

For this 2016 holiday shopping season, there are a whopping 1,220 merchants participating in the promotional shipping day. You can view the complete list, and even search by category, on Free Shipping Day’s website.

These merchants include Barnes & Noble, Target.com, Lululemon, Cabela’s, Tommy John, aerie, and (obviously) many more. Again, all of these retailers promise that not only do they have no-minimum free shipping through midnight tonight, but they will also deliver by Christmas Eve.

So, hop on over to freeshippingday.com, browse the stores, and finish up that gift list tonight. Santa will thank you next weekend.

{ 0 comments }

ally-penny

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 now, called Ally Lucky Penny. They minted 100 special pennies and dropped them in each of ten metropolitan cities. Since doing so last month, Ally has been giving out little clues as to where you can find these copper coins.

The pennies were dropped in Washington, DC (so believe me, I’m also on the lookout) as well as San Diego, Los Angeles, Charlotte, New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Denver, Austin, Miami. Each city had a total of ten coins dropped in random locations, but keep in mind that coins move. So, just because one of the town’s hints says it’s in a park somewhere, doesn’t mean it hasn’t been inadvertently moved across town (or even to another city!). It’s probably wise to go ahead and check your coins each time you get change, no matter where you live, just in case one of these pennies winds up in your pocket.

So, what happens if you end up with one of the special pennies? You’ll need to take it into an Ally Bank, and in exchange, they will give you a 100,000% return… or $1,000 in cold, hard cash. Not a bad deal, just for checking the jingle in your change purse.

But be on the lookout now, as this promotion only goes through December 31, 2016. For more information, rules, and city-specific clues, visit AllyLuckyPenny.com. Good luck!

{ 0 comments }

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 […]

2 comments Read the full article →

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 […]

0 comments Read the full article →

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 […]

3 comments Read the full article →

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. […]

0 comments Read the full article →

Ally Celebrates National Online Bank Day with CD Bonus Rate

by Stephanie Colestock

In case you didn’t know, today is National Online Bank Day! Exciting, huh? (Don’t worry, I didn’t have it marked on my calendar, either). Some online banks are offering promotional discounts and interest rates to celebrate, with Ally being one of them. Ally Bank is one of the more popular online banking institutions, offering a […]

0 comments Read the full article →

2016 Federal Income Tax Brackets and Marginal Rates

by Stephanie Colestock

Can you believe we’re already in September? The year has flown by, and IRS Tax Year 2016 will soon be coming to a close. While your filing deadline isn’t until April 17, 2017 (the 15th will fall on a Saturday), now is the perfect time to begin thinking about your taxes, maxing out your retirement […]

4 comments Read the full article →
Page 1 of 212