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It’s late May, and a new crop of students is preparing to go on to college. One of my less pleasant memories was the agonizing process of securing financing so I could pursue my degree. Though it’s many years later, I’d like to share what I learned that can make paying student loans more manageable and less onerous.

Of course, it was much easier when I went to college than it is now. Even adjusted for inflation, college education was much less expensive then and student loans were a better deal.

The interest rates were actually fairly similar to today’s; but I attended college back when mortgage rates were around 15 percent, so low, single-digit student loan rates represented much more of a discount.

Because student loan debt was less burdensome when I graduated, despite the fact that I took on the debt in a desperate and disorganized way, I was able to pay my loans off early, within five years. These days, the financial stakes are higher, and it takes more planning to make student loan debt manageable.

How to reduce student loan debt

Here are some things students and their parents should consider to reduce student loan debt in the first place:

  1. Consider value for your education dollar. Education is a wildly inefficient market. By that, I don’t mean that the schools themselves are disorganized. What I mean is that if you think of education as a consumer market with heavy competition for student dollars, it is amazing how wide the cost differences are. Even if you excuse the cost of elite colleges as the price you have to pay for a premium product, looking at more run-of-the-mill colleges one finds huge cost differences — sometimes representing tens of thousands of dollars a year — which do not seem generally to correlate with differences in quality. The nice thing about inefficient markets is that they make bargains available, but only to discerning consumers who take the time to shop around. Cheap should not be your primary criterion for choosing a school, but value for money should be high up on your list.
  2. Understand the qualifications needed for what you plan to do. One reason it is not out of place to think of education as a consumer market is that there is so much hard selling of degree programs these days. Often times, colleges heavily advertise degree programs that relate to a trendy career choice, but those degrees do not represent the full qualifications necessary to compete in that field. Don’t just choose a degree program because it sounds like something you’d like to study; think ahead to what you would like to do for a living, and then work backward to identify the degrees necessary to get hired in that field.
  3. Know what the market is for your planned career. Speaking of thinking ahead, research what demand there is for your planned career. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is a good source for information on hiring trends by occupation. I’m not saying you can’t choose more of a niche field because it is something you love, but you should know what your odds of making a living in that field are before you spend time and money preparing for it.
  4. Explore all your financial aid options. The federal government has a program called Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. This is a good clearing house for information and application materials for several types of student financial aid, so you can find the resources you need and choose the best ones for your situation.
  5. Prioritize your financial aid types. If there are grants or scholarships available — sources of aid that don’t require repayment — make the most of those before you borrow money. Then, choose federally-backed student loans first, because these offer good loan terms and some repayment flexibility. Private student loans should be your last priority.
  6. Use savings resources wisely. If you have saved money for college, put it in vehicles that will make it available when you need it and yet earn you the most interest in the meantime. You’ll find that if you are able to plan six months or more ahead, you can find CD rates that will do better for you than what you could earn in a savings account.
  7. Check how your repayment schedules add up before you borrow. Every loan you sign up for will probably provide a repayment schedule, but the reality check is to see how those repayment schedules add up as you take on multiple loans. Graduating students are often shocked by the burden they are facing, but there is no excuse for taking on obligations you won’t be able to meet.
  8. This time is too expensive to waste. Don’t be intimidated by the financial responsibility facing you, but respect it and use it for motivation. Blowing off classes and prolonging your time in school is an awfully expensive luxury. Getting your degree on time can save you a great deal of money.
  9. Remember the bigger picture cost of failing to pay. There is a lot of resentment among recent graduates about the financial burden they’ve taken on with student loans, and this is often expressed as talk about not paying back those loans — either by taking advantage of government forgiveness programs, lobbying for student loan relief, or simply defaulting. Just remember that every student who fails to pay back a loan makes it harder for subsequent students to get those loans. If you approach taking on and paying back loans responsibly, you can make the system work for you and future generations of students.

When you think about it, financing college represents a sort of hand-off of responsibility from the parent’s generation to the student’s. The parent often helps pay for college and guides the student in finding and organizing financing. In the long run though, it is the student left making the student loan payments for years to come — often until he or she has kids and has to start thinking for their college education.

That passing down of financial responsibilities between generations makes this an ideal time to work together to find and plan educational financing, so the older generation can share what they’ve learned and the younger generation can step up and make informed decisions about the process rather than just going along for the ride. Given the nature of the challenge involved, both an older person’s knowledge and a younger person’s eye to the future can bring valuable perspective to the process.

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Tax Day 2016 for IRS Tax Year 2015, also known as your return filing deadline, is April 18.

If you haven’t yet filed, here are the IRS tax rates for your 2015 earnings with background and commentary. These change from year to year to protect against something the Tax Foundation calls “bracket creep” or when you get bumped up based on inflation not because you got a nice raise or found a higher-earning job.

Curious who will pay the most for tax year 2015? The top marginal rate is 39.6%.

Looking for your federal refund status? If you’ve already filed you can use this part of the IRS website to check.

What are the 2015 marginal tax rates?

The following was written by Luke Landes and edited by Consumerism Commentary for length and clarity.

There’s a big misconception about taxes. People are afraid to earn more if it means they’re going to be “bumped into the next tax bracket.” It is not true that being in a higher tax bracket will cause all of your income to be taxed at a higher rate. The only income tax at the highest rate is the income you earn above and beyond the lower threshold for that rate.

Make sure that sinks in. You will always owe the lowest tax rate, 10 percent, on your first $9,225 of earned income if you file as a single individual (not filing jointly). You could be a CEO earning $5 million this year, but even still, your first $9,225 is taxed at 10 percent. That’s how the brackets work.

So if your total taxable income is $9,000, you owe 10 percent of that, or $900. In this case, your marginal tax rate, 10 percent, is exactly the same as your effective tax rate. You get your effective tax rate by dividing the amount of total tax you owe over your total income. This is what Warren Buffett has famously referred to when explaining how his secretary pays more tax than he does. Buffett earns a lot of income from investments which are taxed at a lower rate than earned income, and that smaller percentage affects the average — the effective tax rate for all his income.

One more thing to keep in mind is that if you are employed and your employer takes tax payments from your paycheck automatically, you pay your 2015 tax bill throughout the year. The total tax you owe when you file your tax return takes that into account. If your total tax bill is less than what you’ve paid to the federal government throughout the year, you’ll get a refund. If you haven’t covered your entire bill through paycheck withholding, you owe the government.

The 2015 federal income marginal tax rates and brackets by filing status.

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Cash back credit cards can help consumers practice responsible spending while earning a little extra for their efforts when used properly. The days of earning 5 percent cash back for all credit card purchases may be just a memory, but the smart use of credit cards can still be profitable for diligent consumers. You may be able to find some credit cards offering a high level of cash back in certain spending categories, but these are often subject to maximums.

Most of today’s better cash back credit cards offer 1 percent to 2 percent cash back on purchases. However, if you look hard enough, you’ll find a number of credit cards with higher cash rebates. Keep in mind that in order to make credit card with rewards programs worthwhile, you must pay your bill on time and in full every single month to avoid interest charges and late fees.

This ever-changing list reflects the best cash back credit cards currently available. Weighing in with his expert feedback is Curtis Arnold, CardRatings.com founder and editor in chief, and nationally recognized consumer educator and advocate. Want to learn more about any of the cards listed below? Click through below to read Arnold’s full reviews of these top cards, see CardRatings.com Cash Back Credit Card Comparison Table or visit the CardRatings.com list of hand-picked list of best cash back credit cards.

Editor’s choice

Discover It® CardDiscover it® Card-Double Cash Back your first year – CardRatings.com review. Discover® recently announced a tempting offer for anyone considering a new cash-back card— they’ll double all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year automatically on this card. This offer is only intended for new cardmembers and is only available for a limited time. That applies to the 5 percent cash back in quarterly categories as well as the 1 percent cash back on all other purchases. With the new New Freeze It® on/off switch, you can prevent new purchases, cash advances and balance transfers on misplaced cards in seconds by mobile app and online. You can also get your free FICO® Credit Score on statements, online and by mobile app, and will pay no annual fee or foreign transaction fees.

Other cards

Chase Freedom Visa cardChase Freedom®. See the issuer for terms, but Chase is offering a $150 bonus for new cardmembers. You can earn this bonus after spending only $500 on purchases within the first three months of owning the card.

Besides this bonus, Chase Freedom® offers 5% total cash back on up to $1,500 in combined purchases in bonus categories each quarter you activate. All other purchases (purchases in other categories or purchases in the 5% category beyond $1,500) earn 1% cash back. It’s automatic! There are new 5% categories every 3 months like gas stations, restaurants, select grocery stores, and wholesale clubs. Cash back rewards never expire as long as your account is open. It’s free and simple to activate your bonus each quarter.

Chase Freedom® has a 0% intro APR for 15 months on purchases and balance transfers. Its ongoing APR is 14.24% – 23.24% variable. The balance transfer fee is 5% of the amount transferred, $5 minimum. And the cash advance APR is 25.24% variable, but a cash advance fee of either $10 or 5% of the amount of each transfer (whichever is greater) applies.

So while the most you can earn from the 5% bonus cash back rate is $75, your cash back at the 1% rate is unlimited. Plus, Chase Freedom® carries no annual fee.

Fidelity Investment Rewards Visa Signature Card. Fidelity’s card is regularly cited as a Consumerism Commentary readers’ favorite. For the first $15,000 you spend on this card in a year, you will earn 1.5 points. After you hit the $15,000 threshold, each dollar will earn 2 points. Every time you pass 5,000 points, Fidelity will deposit $50 into your account.

This card requires a linked account at Fidelity, but these accounts are free and can be good choices for savers and investors. A few years ago, I chose to rollover a former company’s 401(k) into a Fidelity IRA, and I use Fidelity as the servicing company for my charitable gift fund. Their index mutual funds are some of the lowest cost in the business, but for most of my own investing I prefer Vanguard. Vanguard, however, does not offer a similar credit card offer.

Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express. I recommend this card as the one whose bonus categories are most likely to overlap the spending habits of parents. Special offer – get up to $300 back. Offer ends June 15, 2016. Get 6% cash back on groceries at U.S. supermarkets up to $6,000 per year in purchases (then 1%), 3% cash back at U.S. gas stations, and 3% cash back at select U.S. department stores. (That’s where I spend all my money!) And 1% on other purchases. Terms and limitations apply. With the Blue Cash Everyday® Card, you can get cash back. No rotating reward categories. No enrollment required. Cash back is received in the form of Reward Dollars that can be redeemed as a statement credit. You can only get cash back on eligible purchases. And there is no annual fee. Terms and restrictions apply. Compare this card with others in its category and apply here.

Capital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards. The basic offer for Quicksilver Cash Rewards from Capital One® is a 1.5% rate of cash back on every purchase with no limit. If you are approved and open this card, Capital One® currently offers a one-time $100 cash bonus if you spend at least $500 on purchases within the first three months. Compare this card with others in its category and apply here.

Capital One® is also offering an introductory interest rate of 0% on purchases and balance transfers until September 2016. Balance transfers carry a fee of 3% of the transferred balance. You’ll need good to excellent credit to be considered for this credit card which carries no annual membership fee and no foreign transaction fees.

Discover it® Chrome. With Discover it® Chrome, you can earn 1% cash back on every purchase, but Discover® offers an opportunity to earn double cash back on certain categories. The double cash back is limited to $1,000 in combined purchases, though, which adds up to only $100 extra. Still, that’s $100 you wouldn’t have otherwise.

The categories for double cash back with Discover it® Chrome are gas stations and restaurants. In order to make using the cash back points even easier, Discover® allows you to pay for items on Amazon.com using points instead of dollars. That could come in handy during the holiday seasons.

Ink Cash® Business Credit Card. Yes, this is a business card, but sole proprietors can open an account too. Not only is this a good cash back card, but it’s the card I recently chose to open for a side business. Chase is currently offering new customers a $200 account cash back bonus after you spend $3,000 on purchases across the first three months from account opening.

Beyond the opening bonus, Chase offers cardholders 5% cash back on purchases at office supply stores, telephone (mobile and landline) payments, and cable and internet bills, up to a total of $25,000 in combined purchases each account anniversary year. The next tier is a 2% cash back rate on combined purchases up to $25,000 at gas stations and restaurants each account anniversary year. These bonus cash back tiers include points that aren’t added to your account until the anniversary of your card opening, so that’s a little inconvenient.

Otherwise, all other purchases earn an unlimited 1% cash back. Always see issuer’s terms regarding APR.

If you’re holding on to a cash back credit card that you feel deserves to make this list, let me know by leaving your thoughts in the comments below. If the offer is good, I’ll add it to this best cash back credit cards list.

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In chemistry, a catalyst is something that triggers a reaction — but the nature of the reaction itself depends on having the right elements in place to respond to the catalyst.

What brought to mind that tattered remnant of high school chemistry was thinking back on buying my first house.

I’ll explain how I got from home-buying to chemistry — and, in the process, hopefully share some pointers about what elements should be in place when you buy a home and what catalysts might trigger you to react to those elements.

The chemistry of home-buying

The reason I’m talking about home-buying in terms of chemistry is that there is more to buying a home than pure dollars and cents. Don’t get me wrong. The financials are important, and I’ve written a fair amount about some of the financial aspects of home-buying. However, what is equally important is your personal outlook.

Generally, the elements of your personal situation fall into place bit by bit over time, and you might not really notice how they are developing. It can take a catalyst to set everything in motion.

In my case, the catalyst was simple: Our landlord tried to raise our rent by $50. That doesn’t sound like much today; but at the time, it was 12.5 percent of the rent we were paying previously. More than that, it was a catalyst to us. We realized that renting meant being subject to that unpredictability every year when the lease term ended.

Once that catalyst sparked the idea of buying a home, all the right elements were in place for us to follow through on our decision. My career was progressing well, I had gotten married and we planned to have kids, and we had family roots in the area. If it hadn’t been for that catalyst, though, I’m not sure how long it would have taken for it to occur to us to buy a house. So, we have our landlord to thank.

Here’s how the chemistry of home-buying might come together for you.

How to know if it is time to buy a house

Here are some of the right elements for buying a home:

  • Career stability. This does not necessarily mean that you plan on staying in the same job, but that you have in-demand skills and that there is a healthy job market for those skills within commuting distance of the house you plan to buy.
  • Commitment to your area. It could come down to the weather, family and friends, arts and entertainment, or all of the above, but you need to figure out where you want to be for the long haul. It’s okay to be restless when you are young, but it is better if you aren’t that way after you buy a house.
  • Clarity about your household. It might take several years before you start to have clarity on what your household will look like in the future: Will you marry? Do you expect to have kids? Will elderly parents come live with you at some point? The more clarity you have about the size of your household in the years ahead, the easier it is to know what kind of home to buy, though it is always wise to make choices that build in a little flexibility as well.
  • Knowing yourself. Life plans and personal tastes take a while to evolve. Don’t rush into home-buying unless you have a good handle on what you want for the long term.
  • Affordability. This is an entirely different area of discussion; but if the dollars and cents don’t add up, not all the elements for buying a home are in place.

Catalysts can help you decide

Given the right elements, what can trigger you to act on them? Here are some possibilities:

  • A jump in rents. As I mentioned, that did it for us. It changes the current comparison between renting and owning costs, and makes you think about stabilizing your housing expense for the future.
  • Low mortgage rates. You should look at today’s mortgage rates as an opportunity that might not always be there. If home-buying is in your future, you might want to accelerate the timing to take advantage.
  • A change in household. Getting married or having a baby might mean you have to find a bigger place anyway, so you might think about doing that by buying.
  • A strong raise in pay. A meaningful bump-up — beyond the standard annual cost-of-living type of adjustment — could not only give you the financial means to buy a home, but it might also be a sign that your career is well enough on track for you to make that kind of commitment.

In short, besides the math of affordability, buying a home comes down to the chemistry of your personal situation. Perhaps if we had known so much was riding on math and chemistry, we all would have paid more attention in high school.

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Why Lending Rates Can’t Stay Low Forever

by Richard Barrington

The Federal Reserve sure gets a lot of media attention. And yes, the discussion of when and if the Fed is going to raise interest rates can get a little tedious, but it still probably deserves some of your attention because interest rates are woven so deeply into the fabric of household finances. The Fed ... Continue reading this article…

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Retirement Planning and Advice

by Richard Barrington

Retirement does not always go the way people expect. While no two experiences are exactly the same, over time it seems that people’s financial situations in retirement tend to fall into one of a few distinct categories. As you think ahead to how you want your retirement to go, keep the following categories in mind. ... Continue reading this article…

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Hurry While Discover’s® Double Miles Deal Lasts

by Curtis Arnold

Whether you’re planning a very special trip next year or just travel a lot, there’s currently a limited-time offer you really ought to think seriously about. The Discover it® Miles-Double Miles your first year card is effectively offering double miles for the first year after new cardholders (but not existing ones) open their accounts. Here’s ... Continue reading this article…

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Metrics for your household finances

by Richard Barrington

It’s the heart of the baseball season and, whereas 20 years ago talk about the sport would have centered on the All-Star Game, the trade deadline, and how the pennant races were shaping up, now the chatter is filled with terms like “Wins Above Replacement” and “Defense-Independent ERA.” For better or worse, advanced metrics have ... Continue reading this article…

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