Maurie Backman

Maurie Backman has been writing about personal finance for years. A firm believer in educating readers without boring them, she aims to produce content that's interesting, engaging, and easy to understand. Sometimes, she'll even make the occasional joke. Maurie started out as a writer for and joined The Ascent team in early 2019. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking, reading, and reveling in the fact that her creative writing degree actually amounted to something.

Recent Posts

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 8 Colleges That Will Let You Work for Your Tuition

Posted by Maurie Backman on Dec 27, 2019 6:00:00 AM

Avoid student loans by working your way through your studies instead.

Many college graduates today have no choice but to take out student loans to fund their education. The problem? Those loans are often difficult to pay off after graduation. Choosing an in-state public college over a private university could help you complete your studies with less debt -- but so can attending what's known as a work college.

Work colleges, as the name implies, have students work as part of their academic program. By offering free or reduced tuition, these schools are instrumental in helping students graduate without piles of debt.

Young bespectacled woman sitting on college campus bench and working on laptop.

In some cases, students' earnings are applied to their tuition directly, but in other cases, they get to keep their wages. And while peripheral expenses like fees, room and board, and textbooks generally aren't covered by these work arrangements, students can often borrow money or receive grants to make them manageable. 

If the idea of leaving college with minimal debt sounds good to you, then here are eight work colleges you might consider looking into:

1. Alice Lloyd College

Located in Pippa Passes, Kentucky, Alice Lloyd College is a private work college offering free tuition. Students come from one of 108 approved counties and work at least 10 hours a week, often in community service jobs. Room and board, books and supplies, and fees, however, aren't covered in the work program. 

2. Berea College

Kentucky-based Berea College is a private liberal arts work college offering free tuition. Students must work between 10 and 20 hours a week on campus, and typically earn $2,000 for the academic year. Registration, housing, meals, and fees aren't free, though.

3. Bethany Global University

Located in Bloomington, Minnesota, Bethany Global undergrads get work experience through training and outreach programs, and then spend 16 months overseas doing missionary work. The annual cost of attendance for students is estimated at under $10,000 a year.

4. Blackburn College

Located in Carlinville, Illinois, Blackburn College awards $5,000 in annual tuition credit to students who participate in its work program. Students work an average of 10 hours a week.

5. College of the Ozarks

College of the Ozarks, also known as Hard Work U, is a private evangelical college in Point Lookout, Missouri. Students are granted free tuition in exchange for 15 hours of work per week, plus two 40-hour workweeks per school year. Room and board and certain fees aren't free at this school. 

6. Paul Quinn College 

Paul Quinn College is a private, faith-based, four-year liberal arts school located right outside downtown Dallas, Texas. In 2015, it adopted a new financial structure that reduced tuition and fees, thereby allowing students to gain work experience and graduate with under $10,000 of debt. 

7. Sterling College

Vermont-based Sterling College charges 20% less for tuition and room and board than other private New England universities. Students typically work 80 hours per semester and graduate with 50% less debt than the national average.

8. Warren Wilson College

Located right outside Asheville, North Carolina, Warren Wilson College mandates that all students get involved in community engagement activities. Students typically put in more than 50,000 volunteer hours per year.

If you're willing to work during your studies, it pays to consider one of the above schools. You can also apply for the Federal Work-Study program, which is available at a large number of colleges nationwide. Not only can working while in school spare you from graduating with a mountain of student debt, but it can also give you valuable experience that's incredibly useful once you enter the working world. 

Topics: Student Loans