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Financial Literacy

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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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!

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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 bankers, perhaps consumers should be mad at themselves. Time and time again, people let banks get the better of them through careless banking habits.

Here are six ways people willingly give up money to their banks when they don’t have to:

1. Savings account rates

Whether you use an online savings account or traditional brick-and-mortar one, savings account rates have dropped to nearly nothing. According to the FDIC, the average U.S. savings account pays a rate of 0.06 percent. That means a $10,000 savings account would earn just $6 a year in interest — hardly worth the trouble it takes to open an account.

Why are deposit rates so low? Part of it has to do with the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy of lowering interest rates to stimulate growth, but some of the blame has to go to consumer behavior. Banks generally have more deposits than they know what to do with these days, so most do not feel compelled to offer a higher interest rate to attract deposits. What exacerbates that problem is that consumers are all too willing to settle for mediocre rates.

Review up-to-date savings rates

While the average savings account pays just 0.06 percent in interest, some of the top savings accounts pay over ten times that. If consumer behavior were a little more rational, deposits would flow toward the top-paying banks and away from the low-paying ones. This would force those low-paying banks to raise their interest rates or risk a severe drop in deposits.

Unfortunately, too many bank customers fail to take an active approach to shopping for rates, and thus settle for less than a tenth of the interest they could be getting should they go for a high-yield savings account.

2. CD rollovers

Let’s give consumers the benefit of the doubt and say that they actually compare rates for certificates of deposit when they first open a CD. After that, though, too many people just let their CDs roll over automatically at the same bank, without even comparing to see if they could get a better rate somewhere else.

Face it — if the bank knows a CD is going to roll over passively, do you think they will go out of their way to give it their best rate? Different banks have specials on CD rates that come and go, so there is always a good chance of finding a better offer when your CD is due to mature. The nice thing about a CD is that, if you make the effort to shop for the best rate, you can then lock that rate in for the term of the CD.

Besides missing out on the best CD rates, people who let their CDs roll over passively are also missing an opportunity to reevaluate the length of their CD terms. The right term depends partly on interest rate conditions and partly on your financial situation, both of which are likely to have changed since the last time you chose a CD.

3. Mortgage refinancing

This is another situation where banks are more than happy to benefit from a home-court advantage. If they already have your business, they may feel less compelled to offer a better rate when you do additional business with them.

Certainly, it is worth including your current bank in any refinancing comparison you make. If they still own your loan (which is far from a sure thing), they have already approved of you as a credit risk and so may be more likely to approve you for refinancing.

At the same time, though, understand that mortgage rates can vary significantly from one lender to another. Also, risk assessment is a subjective thing, so some banks will feel more comfortable with you than others and thus offer you a lower mortgage rate. Don’t let the convenience of refinancing with the same bank cause you to be locked into paying more mortgage interest than you need to for years to come.

4. Checking account fees

Free checking used to be quite commonplace, but now it is the exception rather than the rule. Still, free checking is there for those who are willing to look for it, even with interest-bearing checking accounts or high yield checking accounts.

Monthly maintenance fees on bank accounts run to over $150 a year on average, so avoiding them can be a big win. Your best bet is to try online checking, since online accounts are more likely to offer free checking than traditional, branch-based accounts.

5. Overdraft protection

Protection sounds nice, doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t want to be protected? Well, when you look at the cost of overdraft protection, it may make you feel a little less safe and warm.

Overdraft fees typically exceed $30 per occurrence, and stories abound of people who bought a $3 cup of coffee and ended up paying a $30 fee. What’s worse is that you might make several transactions before realizing that you’ve overdrafted your account and so pay a multiple of that $30 charge.

By law, all banks, including FDIC insured banks, are supposed to leave people out of overdraft protection unless they actively sign up for it, but banks actively encourage people to opt into overdraft protection when starting an account. It may sound like a benefit, but the inconvenience of having a transaction denied is less damaging than racking up multiple $30 overdraft fees.

6. Credit card rates

You know how interest rates generally have come way down in recent years? Well, apparently credit card companies didn’t get the memo. The average rate paid on a credit card is about the same today as it was seven years ago. This means that, relative to other interest rates, credit cards have become a more expensive form of debt.

Rates can be especially high if your credit history is less than perfect. Remember that when you shop for a credit card, they are probably going to advertise their very best rate. That is not the rate you are going to get unless you have excellent credit, so before signing up for a card, find out what rate they would offer someone with your credit history.

Overall, it is a mistake to think of banks as if they were all pretty much the same. There are over 6,000 FDIC-insured banks in the US, which means you have plenty of choices. How you exercise those choices makes the difference between enriching yourself or enriching your bank.

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The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently conducted a study, presenting a financial literacy test to fifteen-year-olds around the world, and has now published the group’s findings. The sample included 29,000 teens from eighteen countries (or, in the case of Belgium and China, two communities, Flemish and Shanghai). The test is designed to determine financial literacy and capability, with questions pertaining to income, taxes, borrowing, and money management.

Results show that only ten percent of the students taking the test can handle complex financial tasks. The results go much deeper, and show, like other studies before, that socioeconomic status of a community correlates strongly to financial literacy. While news outlets will certainly play up the international competitiveness — “Chinese teens are more financially capable than American teens,” for example — some of these differences disappear when taking socioeconomic opportunity into account.

In the case of China, the only city included in the survey was Shanghai, while the sample from the United States should be representative of the entire country. Even within the United States, financial literacy is biased towards economic opportunity, more than performance in other areas. The test results indicate that the strength of the correlation between socioeconomic status and financial literacy was stronger than the correlation to mathematics performance. That means that the performance gap between the wealthy and poor is wide, and the community-reinforced setbacks are harder to overcome in financial literacy than they would be in other subject areas.

Comparing the United States with the other countries studied, fifteen-year-olds in the United States are less likely to hold a bank account than the average. That is what is illustrated by the chart above.

In general, performance in math is correlated to performance in financial literacy, but that may be due to the types of questions asked in the test. Money is math, as the questions illustrate. But the design of a test can subtly benefit some cultures over others.

The skills addressed in the test, reading an invoice, basic investment knowledge and chart comprehension, reading a paystub, and a high-level evaluation of a loan offer, are all important skills from our perspective — a middle-class head of household with a job. And designing a test around these competencies shows that these are the financial skills we value.

It’s not clear whether the five financial literacy questions available online constitute the entire test given to the fifteen-year-olds in the study, but I would think it’s hard to draw conclusions from these data alone. Perhaps they measure something like “suitability for living a financially middle-class life,” which I think is something we tend to mistake for “financial literacy.”

At fifteen years of age, I’m pretty sure I’d have been able to deduce the correct answers to the questions in this test, but I didn’t have a bank account. I didn’t even have a joint bank account with my parents yet. I think I was sixteen when that day came. And when that day came, that’s when I was introduced to bank accounts.

Had I been required to take a class in elementary school about balancing a checkbook, I expect that information would not have helped me much. Anything I needed to know about the difference between gross pay and net pay would become clear with my first paycheck from Radio Shack, the first company clever enough to hire me. Unfortunately, or perhaps just differentially, many teenagers throughout the United States and the world will never see a paystub. Even among those who do work for a living, there is a vast cash-only economic society.

Who is the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development?

Here’s the organization’s mission statement:

The mission of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is to promote policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world.

The forerunner of the organization was founded in 1948 to run the Marshall Plan, using United States resources to help Europe rebuild its countries after World War Two. In the 1960s, the organization expanded in size and scope.

The OECD is funded by its member countries, with the United States leading the way by providing financial support for 21.2 percent of the organization’s budget. There doesn’t seem to be much corporate or capitalist interests, but the organization does have partnerships with the Business and Industry Advisory Committee and the Trade Union Advisory Committee. Unlike most financial literacy proponents and advocates, this mission does not seem to be spearheaded by the financial industry, who has their own goals in mind.

Is financial literacy education the answer?

The organization reviewed the data collected from the financial literacy study (which was only one part of the test) and is offering several recommendations or observations. All revolve around the recommendation that all countries provide better access to financial education to its students. According to the OECD, access to education is how countries will overcome gaps due to socioeconomic deficiencies.

Countries seek to improve financial literacy skills among students through various approaches. Some incorporate specific financial literacy content into the curriculum, either by identifying how it fits within existing subjects within the curriculum or – less frequently – by creating a stand-alone subject; others focus on helping students to develop a deeper understanding of mathematics concepts. As dedicated financial literacy approaches are relatively new (where they exist), the PISA 2012 financial literacy assessment cannot provide conclusive evidence on which of these strategies, or what combination of them, yields superior outcomes in financial literacy. The next PISA survey of financial literacy, scheduled for 2015, should provide further insights for policy.

Yet, the report does admit that incorporating financial education into school curricula is still inconclusive (although there have been studies showing that financial literacy courses are actually detrimental to long-term financial capability). Perhaps more research is needed.

Also, the organization does recognize that dealing with financial issues involves more than just cognitive processes; it’s important to be able to manage emotional and psychological factors. Students who are more inclined towards perseverance, problem solving, and having parents involved with education are perhaps more likely to succeed financially over the long-term, according to the report’s recommendations. Once again, these traits are going to naturally be more common within communities or households that are distinctly middle-class; see any article I’ve written over the past few years that deals with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, survival mode, the urgency matrix, or realities of poverty to understand why.

Are there any other options?

For a few years, I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to do after inevitably moving on from Consumerism Commentary. Regulars readers are mostly aware that I sold this website a few years ago, although I’ve continued to manage it and serve as the editor and chief (and for the most part, only) writer. There is no pre-determined amount of time for which I’m obligated to stay, but I enjoy the audience here, and I’ve seen how difficult it is to start a new website from scratch and have fans continue to the new site.

In the last year, I’ve done some initial research into starting a non-profit organization with a mission similar to what financial literacy advocates are going for — and similar to the mission of Consumerism Commentary. (Readers should be aware of the mission, and I try to keep that mission in mind when I write, choose guests to appear on the podcast, and otherwise make day-to-day editorial decisions.) I have some interesting ideas, based on lots of reading about financial education and community-based projects that have been proven to change lives for the better, about how an organization could meet goals related to the mission more successfully than financial education (or at least more successfully that financial education alone).

At the same time, the prospect of spending the rest of my life fundraising (begging for money) and being the public face of an organization and missing (I prefer not to be the center of attention) are not ways of living my life that I would look forward to. So this plan is on hold, at least in the form of a non-profit organization under my leadership.

The least I can do is discuss some of these ideas more, and maybe that is the first step towards building something (else) with the potential of changing lives for the better.

Read more about OECD’s findings.

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The Best Investments for a Teenager

by Luke Landes
Teenager

While it doesn’t hurt to discuss investing with children at an earlier age, they can get real, hands-on experience with investing as a teenager. Like many other kids in the 1980s, I played the Stock Market Game in elementary school, and learned nothing about investing, but I learned that adults checked the newspaper every day […]

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Financial Problems Impair Cognitive Abilities

by Luke Landes
Brain

Need more evidence that the financially disadvantaged are in a worse position to succeed in education and work than those without financial concerns? A new report published in the journal Science shows how financial constraints, particularly poverty, impede cognitive functioning. I find one of the experiments interesting not only because of the results, but because […]

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PNC Offers Videos and Interaction With Financial Advice

by Luke Landes
PNC Achievement Sessions

Last week, I criticized the McDonald’s corporation for producing a website and a toolkit, aimed at their employees, designed to help those employees tackle the financial obstacles they are most likely to face. My first point was that financial literacy education hasn’t been proven to help the most needy, and in some studies, has been […]

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Don’t Take Budgeting Advice From McDonald’s

by Luke Landes
McDonald's ridiculous budget worksheet

I had planned to write about McDonald’s ridiculous budgeting tips for employees when I first saw the news circulating through social media. I’m so far behind with my editorial plan that every last Consumerism Commentary reader has probably heard about this latest manifestation of corporate ignorance of reality by now. Writers of all stripes and […]

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Financial Role Models vs. Money Classes

by Luke Landes
Financial literacy and role models

Non-profit organizations and for-profit businesses promote financial literacy education as the solution to a society of citizens unskilled with managing their own money. If only we could have mandatory money management classes in high school and earlier, advocates claim, the United States would be a nation of savers, free of most debt other than mortgages, […]

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Teaching Kids About Money

by Luke Landes
Teaching Kids About Money

Most people who learn about proper money management as an adult learn the hard way. A common thread in stories about personal financial recovery is a journey to “rock-bottom.” Often, a financial crisis is necessary to motivate people to change behavior and learn to be responsible for their financial condition and their path towards improvement. […]

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