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Financial Literacy

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard whisperings of the Federal Reserve’s rate hike last month. This is only the third time since the Great Recession that the Fed has increased rates… and, well, it’s both a good thing and a bad thing.

A Fed rate increase means that the economy is on the upswing. The Fed will only raise the benchmark rate when the economy no longer needs stimulus. Janet Yellen, chairwoman of the Fed, said that her organization plans to go slowly with such rate increases. So, it’s best to assume that the Federal Reserve is cautiously optimistic about the economy and where we stand today.

The most recent benchmark increase was only a bump from .75 to 1 percent. It doesn’t seem like much, but even a tiny change in the benchmark rate can spell major changes for your personal financial situation. Let’s take a look at what the latest increase may mean for you.

How the Fed changes interest rates

The Federal Reserve doesn’t directly affect interest rates. Instead, its benchmark rate affects the federal funds rate — the rate that banks charge each other. The banks then pass those costs (or savings) on to consumers by changing the rates of short-term loans. Then, when short-term rates increase, long-term rates increase, as well.

In short, when the Fed increases its benchmark rate, you’ll first feel the pinch with your credit cards and other adjustable-rate or new shorter-term loans. But you’ll eventually feel the pinch if also you try to take out a longer-term loan, like a mortgage.

Here’s how the current rate increase is most likely going to impact your wallet:

If you have adjustable-rate debt

Variable- or adjustable-rate debts — like credit cards, HELOCs, and variable-rate mortgages — will likely be the first place to feel the difference, post-rate hike. A quarter-percentage interest hike doesn’t seem like much, but it can really add up over time. This is especially true if you’re carrying around a lot of credit card debt.

Let’s assume that you’re holding the average American family’s $16,000 worth of credit card debt. Depending on your terms, the rate increase could potentially cost you several hundred dollars per year.

Learn More: How Is the Nation REALLY Doing With Credit Card Debt?

Just how much more can you expect to pay on your variable rate loan? Dig into your statements to ensure you always know your rates, even as they change. Then, use an online calculator to see how much you’re going to pay in interest when your rate increases.

The best way to deal with this particular issue? Just pay off that debt as soon as you can. Right now, you may only be looking at a difference of $100 a year or less. But if the Fed continues to increase their benchmark rates, the interest rates on your already higher-interest debts are only going to increase.

Need a boost to get you started? Consider transferring some of your debt to a card with a 0% APR introductory period. Paying no interest for even 12 or 15 months can make it much easier to get that principal paid down before you end up paying through the nose because of rate increases.

If you have, or are in the market for, a mortgage

Fixed-rate mortgages, which remain the most popular option, may not skyrocket immediately. But the pinch will come.

According to Freddie Mac, the average 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage in January charged 4.15% interest. In March, that increased to 4.2%. That’s a fairly large increase from this time last year, when rates were more like 3.69%. But from February to March, that much of an increase would probably only make a few dollars’ worth of difference in your monthly payments.

With that said, even a point’s difference on a 30-year mortgage can have a big impact on your finances over time. That’s because you’re paying interest on this loan for so long. Even a few bucks a month will add up over the course of 30 years!

Read More: Can This Simple App Get You Out of Debt?

So, what should you do with all of this in mind? Well, if you’re in the market for a mortgage, you might try to buy sooner rather than later. But only if you have a sufficient down payment and good credit. It doesn’t make sense to pay more for a mortgage, simply because you’ve rushed in before you’re financially ready.

With the Fed’s cautious outlook, it doesn’t seem that interest rates are going to skyrocket any time soon. So, it doesn’t make sense to lock in a lower rate if you’re not financially prepared to buy yet.

What about those who already own a home? If you’re still paying pre-Great Recession interest rates of 5% or more, you might want to consider refinancing while the rates are still low. This is especially true if you’re also in a better credit and all-around financial situation now than you were last time you bought or refinanced your mortgage. If nothing else, it’s worth looking into your refinance options now, before rates increase any more.

In the Know: Can You Refinance Your Mortgage With Bad Credit?

If you have savings and investments

Just as interest rates on consumer debt are rising slowly, so will rates on savings products. Chances are you’ll see a slight increase on the rate on your interest-bearing accounts, including savings accounts. Other interest rates — like those on CDs — will also rise, albeit slowly.

Bottom line: now could be a good time to shop around, Make sure that you’re getting the best interest rate on your high-yield savings accounts and, if you’re not, think about switching.

What about your longer-term investments, including those in your retirement account? It’s much harder to predict a rate hike’s impact on savings vehicles like these. When it comes to long-term investing, just stay the course and keep paying attention to the basics, like asset allocation.

Related: The Perfect Asset Allocation Plan

So, what exact impact will the Fed’s rate increase have on you? It really depends on your current financial situation, especially your debt and savings account mix. Just be sure to pay attention to interest rates on both debt products and savings products, so you can take advantage of the best deals around.

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We’ve always been fans of Quicken here at Consumerism Commentary, and we’ve got a lot of reviews floating around to prove it. But you don’t really need reviews of Quicken from five years ago. You just need to know what to expect from the latest version: Quicken 2017.

Here, we’ll give you the highlights, and we’ll also talk you through the basics of using this interface.

quicken guide

The Highlights

Quicken still provides everything you’ve come to expect, including the ability to track all of your money in one place. If you’re big on tracking your net worth, it’ll help you do that. It tracks both assets and debts, and it will also track investments. (Though if you’re a serious investor, you may want to upgrade to Quicken Premier.)

What’s new with the 2017 version? Not a whole lot has changed, but there are a couple of upgrades you should know about, including:

  • Mobile: Now you can download the Quicken app to track your investments and budget on the go. The mobile app has a nice interface with everything you’ll find in the desktop version. Plus, you can add budget line items as you spend.
  • Advanced Search: You can find mobile transactions more easily with the mobile advanced search feature.
  • Refresh: Quicken got a refresh this year. The screen looks nicer, and the interface is a little more user-friendly. It’s not a major overhaul, but it’s easy on the eyes.
  • Zillow: You can connect with Zillow to automatically import your home’s estimated value. While Zillow may not be the most accurate option if you’re actually getting ready to buy or sell a home, this is a simple way to get a ballpark idea of your home’s value when calculating your net worth.
  • Alerts: You can get alerts sent to your phone or email inbox when bills are due or when you’re about to go over your budget.
  • Receipt Storage: Need to track expense receipts, but tired of paper clutter everywhere? You can snap photos of your receipts and store them with the mobile app.

Related: How to Track and Manage Receipts with Google Docs

Once you get set up, keeping track of everything in Quicken is relatively simple. Here’s what it all looks like:

First, import your accounts

As with other popular budgeting and financial tracking software, Quicken will automatically sync with your bank and credit card accounts, as well as your investment accounts. This makes it easy for you to track transactions without having to enter them manually.

In fact, the very first thing Quicken asks you to do after you enter your credentials is to sync a new account. To make it happen, you’ll just need your account’s login information. You can import all sorts of accounts, even to the basic version of Quicken, though investment tracking is more robust with the higher-level versions.

Next, check your recent transactions

When your accounts are imported, it can seem a little overwhelming at first. Quicken automatically categorizes your transactions, but you’ll likely have to go through a recategorize many of them. Quicken will give you the last thirty days’ worth of spending information to work with.

I do like how the system breaks everything down graphically. Once you set all of your transactions into categories, you can see what percentage of your budget goes to each category, and check out a corresponding chart breaking down your spending. It looks like this:

Quicken 1

You can see that Quicken will alert you when there are uncategorized transactions. You can click into that directly to see those transactions. Then, you can sort your transactions by account, date, and type of spending (with or without taxes).

You can also click into spending categories to figure out which transactions Quicken has placed into which categories. Chances are you’ll want to change some of those if you’re a budgeting stickler!

Quicken 2

Related: A 10-Minute Budget That Actually Works

Try the bill reminder system

Once you’ve been in the spending category interface, you can use the bill system to remind you when your bills are due. It’ll look at your last two months’ worth of transactions and find recurring bills and their due dates. The system will also track any paychecks you have automatically deposited to your bank account.

Quicken 3

You can then set up the reminders, which will alert you when bills are due and project your checking account balances over the next 12 days, based on your upcoming income and expenses.

Quicken 4

Since it’s not accounting for one-off spending like groceries and gas, this balance isn’t very accurate. At least not for me! But it can be a helpful way to stay on top of your bills so you don’t miss any due dates.

Learn More: Track Your Cash Flow with Google Docs

You can also sign up to have Quicken actually pay your bills for you. This requires a validation of your bank account and a monthly payment of $9.95. Since many banks offer free bill pay services, this one may not be worth the additional spend.

Create a budget

As with other pieces of this interface, Quicken will automatically create a budget for you based on past spending. However, this spending is according to Quicken’s categorizations. If you think Quicken has gotten a few things wrong, it’s best to re-categorize your existing transactions before delving into the budget tab.

Once you do, though, you can get access to a quick budget that you can change from there. The budget interface now looks very similar to Intuit’s Mint.com, which features slider bars to show how close you are to the budget limit in each category.

Quicken 5

You can, of course, change the budget for each category depending on your preferences and needs. You can also look at the budget in terms of only certain bank accounts, toggling between transactions in each account on the left sidebar.

One of the interesting things about this budget interface is that you can run various reports. These come out as very nice, color-coded documents that you could print off or store electronically, for an over-time view of your personal finances.

You can run reports for a variety of scenarios, including spending by category, spending versus available budget, income versus expenses, or spending for the month versus average spending by category. These over-time reports will become more useful the longer you use Quicken, which gives it more data to pull from. But some of the reports look like this:

Quicken 6

These reports could be really helpful if you’re trying to meet specific financial goals, like reducing spending in a few categories or tracking your budget over time.

What about upgrades?

My review has been based on the Quicken Starter option, but there are other options currently available, too. Here’s a quick breakdown of what they offer:

Quicken Deluxe

Quicken Premier

Quicken Home & Business

Quicken Rental Property Manager

Is Quicken right for you?

Quicken offers a load of great features, and its new interface is definitely more user-friendly than the last version I reviewed in 2014. If you want a one-stop-shop for tracking all of your personal finance details — from budgeting to investments to debt — then Quicken may be a worthwhile investment.

With that said, I don’t think I’d pay for the basic version of Quicken when free tools like Mint.com can do basically the same thing. My personal preference for budgeting is YNAB, though it does come with a $5/month fee.

However, if you want to add investment tracking and detailed financial planning into the mix, Quicken Deluxe might be a good option for you. And, of course, if you run rental properties or a small business, you can’t go wrong with the robust business-oriented versions of Quicken.

So, tell us: do you think Quicken is the right option for your personal finance tracking needs?

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It’s a good thing I’ve been saving a good portion of my income for the past year. Even with making estimated tax payments — the last of which was due on January 16 — I still have a significant tax bill this year, thanks to increased income.

Many taxpayers dread filing their taxes, even if they receive a refund from the IRS. It’s often a time-consuming process that can be fairly stressful. Plus, pressing Submit on your electronic return (or licking the stamp of your paper return) can bring out fears and anxiety over the possibility of an audit, no matter how diligent you were about your records.

Some people, like me, have a stronger reason for the lack of anticipation: we will end up owing money. And for those who haven’t saved enough money throughout the year, this is a dreaded situation.

TAX BILL

What If You Can’t Afford Your Tax Bill?

First of all, you don’t want to owe the IRS money. This type of debt is one of the hardest types to erase. There is no statute of limitations on IRS debt, either, so it won’t just go away on its own if ignored long enough. Even if you declare bankruptcy, it’s very difficult to get rid of tax debt.

Related: How to Adjust Your Witholdings for a $0 Return

Sometimes taxpayers receive a notification saying they owe money, but it might not be accurate. The IRS is a system subject to human error, just like any other agency. You can dispute the amount you owe if it doesn’t match your records and you have a reason to believe your calculation is correct.

Need More Time to File? How to Get an Extension on Your Taxes

The government is sensitive to the issue of whether you can afford to pay, so they’re willing to work with you a little bit. The best option is to avoid using a credit card to pay your debt, which would ordinarily be many consumers’ first choice. When you file your taxes, don’t pay online at that time if you can’t afford it in cash. Instead, wait until after you submit your form and it’s accepted by the IRS. Then, visit the IRS website to file an Online Payment Agreement.

If you take long enough, the IRS will send you a tax due notification, but there’s no need to wait for that to arrive. If you have your adjusted gross income (AGI) from your tax return, the amount you owe, and, of course, your Social Security number, you can get started. The form will first ask you how much you can pay and when you can pay it. Then, it will come up with a payment plan that works for you.

The payment plan will allow you to spread your tax bill out over a longer period of time. This improves the chances that paying your bill won’t cause you a financial hardship, and the IRS still manages to collect the monies due —  a win-win in their book. There is a fee for creating a payment plan, ranging from $43 to to $225.

If your financial hardship is only temporary, the IRS may delay collection, though interest and late fees will still be added to your bill. The IRS could also file a federal tax lien, even if they delay collection. This means your property could become property of the government in order to satisfy your debt.

The last line of negotiation with the IRS is an Offer in Compromise. There are only a few situations in which the IRS will accept a lower tax payment than what they believe is due. If the IRS believes you’ll never be able to satisfy your tax liability, but you agree to the amount you owe, an Offer in Compromise might satisfy the IRS.

If there is legitimate doubt about the tax bill — this will usually happen only in complicated situations — the IRS might consider an Offer in Compromise. Also, if you could afford your tax bill, but paying it would create a significant economic hardship, the IRS might consider an Offer in Compromise for you, as well. This is only in exceptional circumstances.

Because the IRS does charge you interest and penalties when you don’t pay in full or on time, the best solution is to pay the bill in full as soon as possible to reduce these extra costs, even if you agree to payment plans. I prefer the above options over other payment types (such as a high interest credit card) when cash isn’t available at the time the bill is due. However, the IRS offers these additional suggestions:

I’m not a big fan of any of these, but it is important to take care of your IRS debt above many other financial priorities.

Have you ended up with a big tax bill you couldn’t immediately pay? What was your plan of action?

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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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Why Do I Have More Than One Credit Score?

by Stephanie Colestock

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, […]

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6 Ways Your Bank is Ripping You Off

by Richard Barrington

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

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Wealthy Shanghai Teens Are More Financially Savvy Than Average Americans

by Luke Landes

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 […]

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The Best Investments for a Teenager

by Luke Landes

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

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

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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