MOVED This Texas-Sized City Lets You Earn Big and Live Cheap

Posted by Dan Caplinger on Jan 3, 2020 3:45:00 AM

New research shows how one big population center strikes the right balance for its residents.

When you choose a place to live, you have to strike a balance between what you want and what you need. Big cities have lots of amenities and job opportunities, but they're often extremely expensive. Smaller areas tend to be a lot more affordable, but you might not be able to come close to earning as much money as you want in order to achieve your financial goals.

But if you want the best of both worlds, there's one city among the largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. that strikes the right balance. As research from The Ascent into salaries and costs of living discovered, the Texas city of Houston should be high up on your list if you want a major population center that won't strain your wallet.

Panoramic view of highways leading toward the city of Houston.

Strong job opportunities at a reasonable price

The Ascent's research asked a basic question: Are there places where you can find some of the highest-salaried jobs in the nation without having to break the bank to afford to live there? In many big cities, the answer is no. For example, San Francisco is near the top of the list when it comes to average salaries. But you'd have to pay twice what the average American pays to cover typical expenses like housing, food, utilities, transportation, and healthcare if you want to live there.

However, Houston strikes a good balance. With an average annual salary of more than $54,000, Houston tops the national average by more than $2,000. Yet the cost of living in the nation's fourth-biggest city is 5% less than what the typical American has to pay. That combination ranks Houston No. 6 overall among more than 200 of the largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. -- putting it behind some much smaller cities like Kalamazoo and Des Moines.

What Houston has to offer

The popular perception of Houston is that it's full of oil wells and cattle, and admittedly, the energy industry does still play a major role in the city's economy. Houston serves as the corporate hub for many of the biggest oil and gas exploration companies in the world, and it's also a major center for petroleum refining and petrochemical production.

But Houston learned the hard way that not having a diversified economic base left it vulnerable to plunging oil prices in the 1980s, and it went about looking for ways to build up other industries to protect itself from future oil busts. Now, Houston features a thriving health care industry, with some of the most influential medical institutions in the country located there. And major players in the technology, banking and finance, manufacturing, education, and media businesses now call Houston home.

Moreover, Houston's port is a center of global trade, well situated to move goods to and from countries across North and South America and the Caribbean. The port plays a key role in driving Houston's economic growth, especially in light of developments regarding the recent trade agreement between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. As Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, recently said, "Canada and Mexico have been two of Houston's most important trading partners for over 20 years, and USMCA is critical to continuing that relationship. As a global logistics hub and top export metro, Houston is uniquely positioned to benefit from the agreement."

Houston boasts a labor force of almost 3.5 million people, and unemployment rates are extremely low at 3.5%. Yet consumer prices in the area have risen at a slower rate than the average community in the U.S. over the past year, accentuating the advantages that Houston provides for those looking for an affordable place to live.

Can Houston stay prosperous and inexpensive?

One reason Houston has been able to keep itself as affordable as it has is that it lacks the extensive land use regulation that many similarly sized communities have. In many cities, zoning laws make it difficult for real estate developers to build new projects to provide more housing for residents, and that can keep housing prices artificially high. That hasn't been the case in Houston, where ample land has allowed the city and its suburbs to expand outward and support a growing population.

What's particularly encouraging, though, is that Houston remains a prosperous place for job seekers even with the recent weakness in oil and natural gas prices. The same conditions in the energy industry 35 years ago provoked massive economic disruption, but now, Houston is better positioned to weather the downturn.

For those seeking a big-city experience but wanting to stick to a budget and even put some money in the bank, Houston offers an attractive balance. With everything a major metropolitan area can offer at a fraction of the price tag you'll find in many similarly sized cities, Houston's worth a closer look for those who want it all.

Topics: Banks

MOVED Can You Pay Off 1 Credit Card With Another? It's Complicated

Posted by Lyle Daly on Jan 1, 2020 6:00:00 AM

There's no direct method, but there are a couple of indirect options.

If you have multiple credit cards, you've probably wondered at some point whether you could just use one to pay off the other.

Plenty of consumers ask this question because there would be obvious benefits if the answer was yes. It would be easier to manage when money's tight, and better yet you could earn rewards on one credit card by using it to pay another card's bill.

Woman choosing and removing one credit card from a set of three.

Unfortunately, you can't earn rewards that way. And when you're paying a credit card bill, there's no way to add another credit card as a payment source. There are two potential workarounds -- but only one of them is a good idea.

Balance transfers

If you want to pay one credit card with another, the smart method is a balance transfer. To do this, you'll either need to log in to the online account or call the card issuer of the card you want to use for payment. You'll then provide the card number for the credit card with the balance you wish to transfer over, as well as the amount to transfer.

There are a few things to keep in mind with balance transfers. Not all credit cards offer this option, and among those that do, many charge a small balance transfer fee. Some cards have limits on the amount you can transfer to them. Even if a card doesn't have a balance transfer limit, your transfer amount and any transfer fee can't total more than your credit limit.

Consumers typically use this method to get a lower interest rate on their credit card debt, often opening balance transfer cards that offer 0% introductory APRs for a set period of time. 

If you can't pay your credit card bill in full and you have a good credit score, one of these cards can help you save money on interest. You'll need to make minimum payments, but you won't have interest charges piling up, at least during the card's introductory period.

Cash advances

The alternative route is to get a cash advance on one credit card, and then use the money to pay your other card's bill. Most credit cards offer cash advances, although cash advance limits are usually much lower than the card's total credit limit. You will also need to pay a cash advance fee on any amount borrowed using this method.

The reason why getting a cash advance from your credit card is such a poor decision is the interest. Credit cards have separate cash advance APRs, and these APRs tend to be much higher than the standard purchase APR.

To make it even worse, there's no interest-free grace period with cash advances. For purchases, credit card companies must give you a grace period of 21 days before charging any interest. This is because of the CARD Act of 2009. That law doesn't apply to cash advances, so credit card companies can start charging you interest on those immediately.

It's never a good idea to get a cash advance, and it also doesn't make any sense to use a cash advance to pay another credit card bill. You'd be better off making a minimum payment and carrying the balance on the original card for the time being. You'll pay interest, but at least it will be at the purchase APR and not a higher cash advance APR.

What to do if you can't pay your credit card bill

If you can't pay your entire credit card bill, the right move will depend on the amount you owe.

For credit card debt that you won't be able to repay within about three to six months, a balance transfer is the way to go, assuming you can qualify for a balance transfer card. But if you're confident you can pay off all your credit card debt relatively quickly then it could be best to simply focus on paying it down as fast as you can without transferring the balance.

And while a cash advance may initially seem convenient, the fee and the interest you'll pay mean you should avoid this option at all costs.

Topics: Credit Cards, Balance Transfer

MOVED Should I Pay Off Holiday Debts With a Personal Loan?

Posted by Dana George on Dec 31, 2019 4:00:00 PM

If you're worried about how to pay off your holiday credit card debt, here are the pros and cons of taking out a personal loan. 

If you're feeling a financial hangover after holiday shopping and have considered taking out a personal loan to pay off your credit card debt, you have a decision to make.

When I was young and struggling with a big decision, my mother would suggest I create a list of pros and cons. I'd get a piece of paper, draw a line down the middle, and on one side I'd write the positive things that could happen if I made a particular decision, and on the other I'd write the negative things that could result from that decision.

Man in festive sweater morosely slumped over desk looking at statements and calculator against Christmas tree backdrop.

So, should you take out a loan to pay off holiday debt? Here's our list of pros and cons. Hopefully, it will help you decide.

Pros of taking out a personal loan

1. You may lower your interest rate

One of the main reasons for using a personal loan to consolidate your credit card debt is to access a lower interest rate. Make sure the interest rate on any personal loan you take out will be lower than the one you are paying on your credit card debt. 

2. You can simplify your bill payments

Say you have five different credit cards. Consolidating them through a single loan will streamline the bill payment process and make it less likely that you'll overlook a bill. Lenders also often offer an interest rate discount if you sign up for automatic payments, which is a double win. You'll pay less in interest and never have to worry about forgetting to make a payment.

3. It can improve your credit score

Taking out a personal loan can sometimes improve your credit score. Although you should never take on additional debt solely to improve your score, if it already makes sense to do so, this could be an added bonus.

One of the things credit bureaus look for is a mix of credit. The greater the variety of credit types, the higher your credit score. For example, it is better to be making on-time payments on an auto loan, a credit card, and a personal loan than on three credit cards. Mix of credit accounts for 10% of your FICO® Score

4. You may pay off your debt faster

It is possible you'll pay the debt off faster if you reduce your interest rate and don't commit to a lengthy repayment timeline. Make sure you read the loan terms carefully and sign up for an affordable monthly payment that does not increase the overall cost of your loan.

Cons of taking out a personal loan

1. Your interest rate is not guaranteed to be lower

Loan rates fluctuate and lenders have flexibility when it comes to setting those rates. As of today, the interest rates for personal loans range from 5.99% to 35.89%, depending on your credit score and the amount you need to borrow. The gulf between the two rates is massive.

To illustrate the difference, if you took out a $5,000 loan at 5% interest and paid it off in three years, your monthly payment would be $150 and you would pay $395 in interest over the life of the loan.

However, if you borrowed $5,000 at 35% interest, your payments would be $226 for three years, and you would end up paying around $3,142 in interest. 

If the interest rate you're offered on a personal loan is very close to the rate you're paying on credit cards, you may be better off sticking with the cards and paying them off as quickly as possible. 

2. You may be tempted to spend more money

If you borrow enough to pay back your credit card debt, it can be tempting to use the cards again and spend more. You may tell yourself that the pressures of the holidays caused you to rack up that debt, but you need to make a firm commitment not to spend more. If you don't take control of whatever made you depend on credit in the first place, you may find yourself with more credit card debt on top of your personal loan.

3. You increase your debt-to-income ratio

Taking out another type of loan is only beneficial if you keep your debt-to-income ratio (DTI) low. DTI refers to how much you owe in relation to how much you earn. Let's say your gross monthly income is $7,000 and total monthly debt payments amount to $3,500. Your DTI is found by dividing $3,500 by $7,000 to get .5 or 50%. 

The lower your DTI, the better. For example, most mortgage lenders prefer a DTI below 43%, and some want it to be below 36%

4. You may have to pay loan fees

Some personal loan companies charge an origination fee, which is usually a percentage of what you borrow. Origination fees range from 1% to 8% of your loan amount. For example, if you borrow $5,000, you may be charged a fee of $50 to $400. If you are counting on every dollar of that loan to pay off holiday debt, remember to factor in the fee and borrow accordingly. 

There is no doubt that the holidays can be wonderful, but debt is no fun. Weigh the pros and cons as they apply to your situation, do the math, and figure out which option works best for you. In the meantime, while you're paying off 2019 bills, you may want to make a plan to avoid more debt in 2020. 

Topics: Personal Loans

MOVED The 5 Biggest Drawbacks of Having a Lot of Credit Cards

Posted by Lyle Daly on Dec 31, 2019 2:00:00 PM


Having a lot of credit cards has its perks -- but it's not all plane sailing.

With the array of benefits that the best credit cards offer, it's tempting to sign up for every card that you like. More cards mean you can get more sign-up bonuses, earn extra rewards in additional spending categories, and take advantage of even more perks.

That's been my strategy, and at this point, I have over a dozen credit cards. Although you can get substantial value this way, there are also drawbacks to be aware of before you start opening multiple cards per year.

Man having a mental breakdown while clutching two big fistfuls of credit cards to his head.

1. You have more accounts to manage

Every time you add a credit card to your wallet, you make your finances more complicated. You have another bill to pay, which makes a missed payment more likely (although you can mitigate this risk by setting up auto-pay). It's also another account that you need to monitor for fraud.

When you have one or two credit cards, you probably won't have much trouble. But with more, it becomes much more of a challenge to manage all those accounts. Any missed payments or other mistakes can cost you money, too, so you should only take on this kind of responsibility if you know you can handle it.

2. It's harder to get approved for new credit cards

My biggest annoyance with having so many credit cards is that it has become significantly harder to get approved for new ones. Quite a few credit card companies now deny applications because the applicant either has too many credit accounts open already or because they've applied for too many cards recently.

If you're used to getting your applications easily approved because you have a good or excellent credit score, be prepared for that to change as your number of cards increases.

3. You could pay more annual fees

Many of the credit cards with the most perks, and especially the most popular travel cards, carry annual fees. It's easy to justify paying an annual fee for a card if you use it frequently and get a lot of value from it. When you have multiple cards with annual fees, then you need to carefully weigh whether you're using them all enough to make those fees worth it. And even if the answer is yes, it can still get expensive.

4. You need to remember which card to use for each purchase

One advantage of having multiple credit cards is that you can earn more rewards on your purchases. For example, you could combine one card that earns a solid flat rate on all your spending with cards that earn higher bonus rates on specific categories, such as grocery stores, travel, dining, and gas. It's a great way to increase the amount of cash back or travel points you earn.

The downside is that to earn those extra rewards, you'll also need to know which card to use for which bonus category. That can lead to situations where you're standing at the register trying to remember which of your many cards will get you the most rewards.

5. It can affect your credit score

The number of credit cards you have doesn't affect your credit score, but there are still a couple of ways that having lots of credit cards can hurt your credit.

The average length of your credit history is a factor used to calculate your score. If you open several new credit cards, it will decrease that average account history length.

Another factor that impacts your credit score is new credit inquiries, which includes the hard credit inquiries that occur whenever you apply for a credit card. If you apply for several credit cards, you'll have multiple hard inquiries on your credit file, thus bringing down your score.

Tread carefully with credit cards

There's nothing wrong with carrying multiple credit cards, and in fact, it can be a smart strategy for some consumers. But it also means you'll have more risks and complications to deal with, so you should err on the side of caution. Start slow, and if you feel like you can handle more, do it one card at a time.

Topics: Credit Cards, Travel

MOVED 7 Ways to Beat Your Parents' Credit Score

Posted by Elizabeth Aldrich on Dec 31, 2019 8:00:00 AM

Get ahead of the game while you're young, and your credit will thank you.

With age comes more life experience and financial stability⁠ -- which may also mean a higher credit score. The Ascent's study on credit scores in America found that individuals over 60 have an average credit score of 747, which is 88 points higher than adults that fall into the 18-29 age range.

In other words, older Americans are more likely to have very good credit, whereas young adults are more likely to have credit that's considered "fair." After all, people in their 20s haven't had a lot of time to build good credit.

Small child defeating grown man at arm wrestling.

Luckily, with some determination and strategic decision-making, it's possible to obtain good, or even excellent, credit at a young age. Here's how you can increase your credit score and maybe even surpass your parents.

1. Get started as early as possible

Your first goal is to build a lengthy payment history. You can start from scratch by opening a credit card with a cosigner or choose a card that's designed to build credit -- like a student credit card.

If you want to try for a regular credit card, use your current relationships to your advantage. Your local credit union may be willing to approve you for a credit card if you already have a positive, long-standing relationship with them.

You can also explore opening a secured credit card which requires a refundable deposit in exchange for credit. The best secured credit cards require a deposit ranging from $49 to $200 and come with a low credit limit. They can be a great option for someone who has just started their credit-building journey.

Finally, if you're having a hard time getting approved, you may have better luck applying for a store credit card. These are usually easier to qualify for, but they tend to have high interest rates and lousy terms. So treat this route as a last resort and make sure you pay off your balance in full each month to avoid interest.

2. Use your credit card regularly and pay it off every month

You can't build credit by simply carrying a credit card in your name. You have to use it. 

Consider using it to pay for a few of your regular bills each month. This can help you get used to using a credit card without swiping it for things you don't need.

One of the worst things you can do to your credit is miss payments. Set up automatic payments to ensure this doesn't happen, and pay off the full balance whenever possible to avoid interest fees.

3. Carry multiple credit cards

Once you've adjusted to using one credit card responsibly and built up some credit, you can open your next line of credit. Balancing several credit cards at once shows you can manage multiple due dates, which creates a more robust payment history.

You need to be smart about when you apply for credit and how you manage your payments. Stick to one or two applications per year to avoid a negative impact on your score. You can keep track of your payment due dates by setting up notifications with your credit card company and signing up for autopay.

4. Keep a low debt-to-credit ratio

You should use your card regularly, but not enough to max out your credit limit. Always keep your balance low, even if you're paying off the full amount each month. This will help keep your credit utilization low, which is an important component of your credit score.

Essentially, your debt-to-credit ratio -- or your balance(s) in relation to your overall credit limit -- should remain below 30% at all times. If you find yourself hitting your credit limit regularly, request a credit limit increase or consider opening another card. This will decrease your credit utilization, as long as you don't increase your balance.

5. Keep old credit cards open

As your credit score improves, you might find yourself gaining access to more rewarding credit cards. But it's important that you don't close your old credit cards unless they charge an annual fee.

As long as your credit cards aren't costing you anything, keep them open to maintain the length of your credit history and the average age of accounts. Both of these factors play an important role in determining your credit score. It will also keep your overall credit limit high, which helps your credit utilization rate. 

6. Sign up to include your banking and bill payments in your credit score

You no longer have to rely solely on lending information to determine your credit score. Services like UltraFICOTM and Experian Boost can give you alternative ways to boost your credit with existing positive financial data.

UltraFICOTM allows you to choose to include information from your checking and savings account to better demonstrate your financial responsibility. You can also opt in to Experian Boost to allow Experian to access your online banking information and include utility and phone bill payments in your payment history.

7. Go slowly and avoid scams

Building credit takes time. Be wary of  services that claim they can help you immediately or quickly achieve excellent credit without requiring any work on your part. These can be a scam, or at the very least, potentially risky.

You never have to pay money to build your credit. Even though taking out a loan can sometimes help, you shouldn't take on debt that you don't need just to improve your credit score.

Instead, rely on free credit-building methods -- like using credit cards and consistently paying your bills on time. It may take some time, but your diligence will pay off and set you up for future financial success.

Topics: Credit Cards, Cash Back & Rewards

MOVED 7 Unnecessary Expenses to Cut in 2020

Posted by Lyle Daly on Dec 31, 2019 6:00:00 AM

Here's how you can tighten up your budget this year.

If one of your New Year's resolutions is to save more money, then seeing where you can reduce your spending is a great place to start. Most consumers, including those who aren't big spenders, have at least a couple expenses that they could do without.

Every dollar counts when it comes to your expenses, as even trimming a small amount per month can save you hundreds of dollars per year. To give you ideas on where you can save, here are some common expenses that you could and should eliminate.

A couple of young women crossing the street and carrying a massive number of shopping bags.

1. Cell phone payment plans

As exciting as it is to get the newest smartphone every year, it's not a good decision to finance a phone on a payment plan. You're taking on an extra monthly bill for a device that you don't need.

The smarter approach is to pay for your phone upfront and keep it for as long as it's working well. If having the latest model is that important to you, then you should make that one of your savings goals and put away enough each month that you can pay for it in full.

2. Bank account fees

Bank fees may not be super expensive, but if you're paying them on a regular basis, they can add up. And with all the great bank account options available, there's no reason to pay any of them.

There are plenty of banks that won't charge you a monthly maintenance fee, regardless of how much you have in your account. You can find a bank that either reimburses ATM fees or has a large network of ATMs for you to use. The other common bank fee is an overdraft fee, but you can avoid that by keeping track of your balance or setting up overdraft protection.

3. Home phone service

Odds are you have a cell phone that does everything your home phone does and much more. If you're still paying for home phone service, it's time to pull the plug.

4. Storage

A storage unit can be useful in situations where you're short on space and need somewhere to leave some of your belongings, but you should only view it as a temporary solution.

If you have property sitting in storage for months or years, you should start working on a plan to get it out of there. That could mean selling your stuff, finding a place in your home to put it, or a combination of the two. But it doesn't make sense to pay hundreds or thousands per year to store things you're not using.

5. Cable

Gone are the days when you needed cable to watch the best shows. These days, there's plenty of quality content available through the growing number of streaming services.

And while it used to be challenging to watch live TV or sports without cable, that has changed as well. Several online services offer channel packages with live TV, and if you're a big sports fan, most of the major sports leagues also offer online subscription packages to watch their games.

6. Unused subscriptions

Subscription services can be valuable if you're using them -- I did just mention the benefits of entertainment subscriptions, after all. The issue is that it's easy to forget to cancel a service you're not using, or to hang on to one that you only use every so often.

With these types of services, the smart approach is to be ruthless. If it's not something you use often, cut it. Save yourself the money for the time being, and if you decide you need it later, you can reactivate your subscription.

7. Credit card annual fees

There's nothing wrong with paying an annual fee for a credit card, but if you have multiple cards with fees, you should probably choose only the one that provides you with the most value. Unless you're a travel rewards enthusiast and you spend a lot of money on your credit cards, it's difficult to carry several cards with fees and get your money's worth from all of them.

Making life more affordable

You don't need to make big, sweeping changes to your life to save more money every month. All of the expenses on this list are things that you can cut without reducing your quality of life.

Topics: Banks

MOVED No Credit? No Problem: Building Credit Has Never Been Easier

Posted by Elizabeth Aldrich on Dec 30, 2019 4:00:00 PM

New credit card companies and ways to boost your score are opening up access to credit.

It can be tricky to get a loan or open a line of credit without a credit history. It's the notorious credit-building Catch-22: You need to access credit to build good credit, but you need to have good credit to access credit.

Folks with no credit will be excited to learn that this maxim may not ring so true anymore. Thanks to new technology, lenders can now draw on additional information like your banking behavior and bill payment history to evaluate you as a potential borrower. This means that you don't necessarily need to show that you've used credit before in order to access credit.

Trio of women in flannels and construction helmets looking at a credit card.

UltraFICOTM and Experian Boost give you credit for paying the bills

Most lenders rely on your FICO® Score to make lending decisions. The problem for many consumers is that there's more to their financial picture than this score alone. And so, new services like UltraFICOTM and Experian Boost have developed algorithms that fill in some of these missing pieces with additional data. 

Both services incorporate data from your bank account to provide a more holistic picture of your habits as a borrower. They make credit opportunities more accessible by expanding the information that determines your credit score. 

UltraFICOTM looks at your checking, savings, and money-market accounts and considers factors like account age, balances, overdrafts, and bill payments. Experian Boost pulls payment information from your bank account for bills like utilities and telecom services, often improving your credit score if your bills are consistently paid on time.

Experian Boost and UltraFICOTM are both free services, which you can opt in to if you want these additional factors to be reflected in your credit score. They may be helpful for consumers with no credit, but they can also help push borderline consumers over the edge into good credit. 

New no-fee credit cards make building credit easier and cheaper

Although the services above can give you a credit boost, they aren't going to catapult you to excellent credit on their own. Getting excellent credit requires a lengthy history of on-time payments.

One of the best ways to do this is by using credit cards strategically.

If you're starting from scratch, secured credit cards have long been the way to go. These low-limit credit cards are easy to qualify for, and will help you build a payment history. You'll need to provide a refundable security deposit of anywhere from $50 to $500. 

Secured credit cards are a great starting point, but they are limited due to their security deposit requirements, low credit limits, and lack of benefits or rewards. They aren't meant to be a long-term solution -- you'll eventually want to transition to an unsecured credit card with a higher credit limit.

The great news is that  secured cards are no longer the only option for consumers who need to build their credit. New credit card companies are popping up that look at alternative data (information outside of your credit score) in order to approve consumers for starter credit cards. In fact, several of the new cards geared toward consumers with no credit are even better than secured credit cards. They come with no annual fee, no security deposit requirement, and upfront terms. Some even offer rewards.

Although building your credit is important, credit cards are a serious responsibility that should only be used to pay for purchases within your means. You should also always plan to pay off your balance in full each month to avoid interest fees.

A good credit score should never cost you money either, meaning that you shouldn't have to take on debt just to build up your credit score. Instead, focus on taking small, consistent steps that move your credit score up the scale over time.

With so many new ways to build your credit, having no credit is no longer the long-term barrier that it used to be.

Topics: Credit Cards, 0% APR & Low Interest

MOVED I Spent Over $1,500 on the Holidays This Year. Here's What I Learned

Posted by Maurie Backman on Dec 30, 2019 10:00:00 AM

The holidays cost me a bundle this year, but I didn't let them wreck my finances. 

The holidays are often called the most wonderful time of the year. To me, they're one part wonderful and one part expensive. 

Don't get me wrong -- I love showering friends and family members with gifts during the holidays. It genuinely brings me joy to be able to do nice things for good people. But it also takes a lot of saving and advanced planning to get through the holidays without racking up debt.

Man in Christmas sweater sitting in front of a pile of gifts while holding a credit card and looking at a document.

This holiday season, in fact, I spent a little over $1,500 in the course of four weeks or less. But thankfully, I did it without wrecking my finances in the process. Here's how I pulled that off -- and how I managed to get past a few hiccups that drove my costs up. 

I started saving in January

Though I have an emergency fund with money set aside for unplanned bills, I don't allow myself to use that account for the holidays. The reason? The holidays aren't an emergency, and also, they're not exactly a surprise. Rather, they come up at the same time every year, so there's ample opportunity to save for them. 

What I usually do is to set money aside each month for that year's holiday spending, beginning in January. This year, I went with $100 a month, which didn't turn out to be enough, but I'll get to that in a minute. By putting that expense in my budget, I was reminded to send $100 a month into a dedicated holiday savings account

I set spending priorities

Going into the holidays, I knew I had a specific amount of money earmarked for seasonal spending. I also realized early on that I'd need to spend that money judiciously if I wanted it to last, so to that end, I set priorities and skimped on or avoided certain expenses that other people tend to pay for at this time of year. 

I was also relatively savvy when it came to shopping. Knowing full well that the best deals can't always be found on Black Friday or Cyber Monday, I started digging around for discounts in mid-November and continued doing so until mid-December, even if it meant cutting it close on the gift-arrival front. 

I made quick adjustments when my costs came in higher than expected

As well as I thought I'd planned for the holidays, I did encounter a few surprise expenses that I neglected to save for. First, friends of mine asked me to participate in a gift exchange that wasn't part of my budget. I felt bad saying no, so I opted in. Next, I wound up hosting a Thanksgiving leftovers swap after a friend put the idea in my head and got me so pumped about it I couldn't not do it. While I didn't have to spend any money on food, buying wine and beer for a dozen people set me back another $50 or so. 

Finally, just when I was convinced I'd finished buying all of my holiday gifts, I suddenly remembered that I'd neglected to purchase anything for the people who run my kids' extracurricular activities. I'd remembered their teachers at school, but not these instructors who no doubt deserved a little something around the holidays, too. 

All told, I wound up spending over $1,500 on the holidays when I thought $1,200 would cut it. Rather than take that $300 from my emergency savings, I cashed in some credit card reward points to cover some of those additional expenses. I also canceled a couple of nights out with friends that probably would've cost $50 or more a pop to make up the difference. 

Avoiding holiday debt

There's a lot of pressure to spend money during the holidays, but if you're starting 2020 with a pile of debt because of them, consider this your wakeup call to not have a repeat. By earmarking money in a savings account every month leading up to the holidays, I didn't have to worry about coming up with that $1,500 all within the same few weeks. And by setting priorities during the holidays, I made the most of the money I had available to me. 

Of course, I did wind up spending a little more than anticipated, but ultimately, had that extra $300 or so been a real hardship, I would've said no to the gift exchange or not done the post-Thanksgiving gathering. 

And that leads to one final point: One of the best ways to avoid hurting your finances during the holidays is to learn to just say no. Remind yourself of that when the 2020 season rolls around, because it could help you avoid a world of debt -- and a world of regret -- at a time when we're all supposed to be celebrating. 

Topics: Credit Cards, Cash Back & Rewards

MOVED Sitting on a Year-End Bonus? Here's How to Make the Most of It

Posted by Maurie Backman on Dec 30, 2019 8:00:00 AM

It's time to put that extra cash to good use. 

Not everyone is fortunate enough to get a bonus from work. But if you're employed by a company that gives out year-end bonuses, there's a good chance you're sitting on a nice pile of cash right about now. 

The question is: What should you do with it? You could put it toward the European vacation you've been planning in your head all year, or upgrade your electronics. But before you make plans to spend that money on these and other luxuries, consider the following smart financial choices instead.

Middle-aged man in suit and Santa hat giving small gift-wrapped box to a young woman who is wearing fake reindeer antlers and looks overwhelmed with gratitude, all in an office.

1. Build or boost your emergency savings

No matter what your income looks like, you should have an emergency fund with enough money to cover three to six months of living expenses. Without that safety net, you may have no choice but to rack up debt the next time you're hit with a home repair, car problem, or bout of unemployment. If your emergency fund needs a boost -- or a start -- then you shouldn't even think about spending a dollar of your bonus until you've got enough to pay for three months of essential bills in your savings account.

2. Pay down credit card debt

If you're carrying a credit card balance, whether from the holidays or before, the longer it takes you to pay it off, the more money you'll throw away on interest. And, carrying lots of credit card debt could also hurt your credit score. If you've gotten a bonus, it's wise to use it to pay down your debt. And if you're not sure where to start -- say, because you owe money on more than one card -- see what interest rates are attached to your different balances, and pay off the cards with the highest rates first. Or, transfer your balances onto a single card with a lower interest rate and pay off that single card. 

3. Chip away at your student loans

Many college students come away from their studies with debt. If you're grappling with student loans and don't have any unhealthy debt (meaning the credit card variety), then it pays to use your bonus to knock some of it out. This especially holds true if your loans have a variable interest rate with the potential to climb over time. 

4. Start saving for retirement

Building an emergency fund should trump retirement savings. But if you're all set with the former, then it pays to start focusing on the latter. Imagine your year-end bonus leaves you with $1,000 to play with. If you were to put that entire sum into an IRA or 401(k), invest it at an average annual 7% return (which is doable when you load up on stocks), and leave it alone for 40 years, you'd grow it into about $15,000.

5. Invest in yourself

Maybe you've been meaning to go back to school, or take specific courses to further your career. If a lack of money has been holding you back, now's the chance to move forward. By investing in your professional success, you could help yourself earn more money (and higher bonuses) over time. And if you have a side hustle that earns you a decent chunk of cash, investing in new tools or equipment for it could help you boost your near-term earnings. The same holds true if you sink a little money into self-marketing. 

Resisting the urge to spend your bonus on fun things takes willpower, and lots of it. But if you do wind up using that money responsibly, you'll be much happier for it in the long run. 

Topics: Banks

MOVED 3 Money Mistakes I Made With My Kids

Posted by Dana George on Dec 30, 2019 6:00:00 AM

Part of being a parent is regretting the mistakes. Here are some of the financial mistakes I made with my kids. 

I love being a mom. Even if I lived to be 125, I could still never string together a combination of words that would adequately describe the joy of motherhood.

Speaking of 125 years: That's also about how long it would take to list the idiotic ways I fouled things up as a mother. I may have enjoyed being a mother, but I sure made a ton of mistakes, some of them financial. Here are the money mistakes that strike me as the most egregious:

A child cries while her mom looks distressed and guilty in the background.

1. Teaching them that money grows on trees

We never wanted our boys to know that we were struggling to cover our bills, including  newly acquired student loans. This made sense when they were 2 and 4. No little kid should have to deal with their parents’ issues. But as they grew, we should have taught them about money. Even as we madly juggled bills so we could pay our student loans, we made sure they had no idea what was going on. Soccer camp? Sure! Another new pair of ridiculously overpriced tennis shoes? Why not? Dad hasn't purchased a new pair of pants in 10 years, but that's because he doesn't enjoy shopping. 

I set a horrible example by charging anything I could not immediately pay cash for to my credit card, including school clothes, weekend trips, and over-the-top holidays. In an effort to create a world for them that did not actually exist, I mortgaged our future. 

My advice to younger parents is to start young. Don't wait until your kids are about to fly the coop to show them your family budget, discuss the differences between wants and needs, and teach them how to balance their own budget. Teach them about credit cards and how to use them responsibly. Your good example is the best personal finance teacher they could ever have. 

2. Advising my children not to work

My parents didn't want me to have a job when I was a teenager because I "had the rest of my life to work." I insisted on taking a job at Royals Stadium and Arrowhead Stadium because the uniforms were just so darned cute. I adored those jobs. I liked meeting new people, being part of something big and exciting, and receiving a full $14 per game.

When my boys were the same age, I told them that I wanted them to focus on school and their extracurricular activities because "they had the rest of their lives to work." You know how I could have taught them about money? I could have allowed them to earn some of it for themselves. 

If I had it to do over again, I would insist they work -- at least part-time. Working teaches kids what it takes to have money in their pockets, how to deal with different kinds of personalities, and it can also grow their confidence. 

3. Making them believe things will take care of themselves

We always knew that the boys were going to college. They wanted it and we wanted it for them. We had their undergraduate tuition worked out but had no idea how they would pay for graduate school. The hope was that they would get through grad school and land jobs so great that they would never have to worry about the impact of those student loans.

We talked to the kids about everything under the sun, but never once discussed student loans. Most of the mistakes I made as a mother were the result of on-the-job-learning and a naturally goofy personality. But the decision not to discuss finances with them when they were old enough to be in graduate school pricks at my conscience. And while I'm on the topic of really bad decision-making, we also told them that we would only pay for their undergrad if they immediately started a graduate program afterward. I feel guilty every time I think about it. 

We had our big "talk" the year each of them finished grad school. It was very late in the game and made the financial reality of their situation more difficult. Today, my sons are both amazing money managers and wise investors, but the fact that we only taught them what they needed to know in the 11th hour was a lot like teaching a passenger to swim while the Titanic was sinking. We're fortunate that they took the lessons to heart. 

Begin to teach your kids about money when they're young by explaining how much money is in their piggy bank and not allowing them to spend a penny more. Require them to do chores for their allowance, encourage them to take a part-time job when they're old enough, and let them have a peek at your monthly bills so they get an idea of what adulting looks like. Above all, encourage them to ask questions.

Parenting is many things, but above all, it is humbling. We do our best and hope it all works out. The fact that we're supposed to teach them to say no to drugs, about the birds and the bees, and how to be good people is firmly instilled in us. It may be time to add the importance of introducing our kids to how money works. It seems to me that it's the topic they're most likely to call and thank us for covering. 

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