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 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 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 I'd Be in Rome Right Now If My Parents Had Taught Me About Money

Posted by Dana George on Dec 29, 2019 2:00:00 PM


Finances were a hush-hush subject in our home. These are some of the financial lessons I wish my parents had shared. 

I'm not sure why, but my parents refused to discuss money in front of me while I was growing up. Refused. They would rather sit me down and have "the talk" than divulge anything income-related. In fact, the only time I recall my parents ever whispering was when they were making a financial decision and I was nearby.

Once I began to learn, I figured out that finances incorporate all the major courses we studied in school. The way money works for us is like a sexy version of algebra. The fact that we make emotional financial decisions is pure psychology. And the rise and fall of the stock market tells the story of America, helping us understand how politics, war, innovation, and manpower shape history and build or destroy economies.

Dad sitting on couch with his two young kids as they all put coins into a piggy bank.

Kudos to my folks for teaching me about the birds and the bees in a way that didn't leave me traumatized. I offer them nothing but praise for discussing politics so thoroughly that I was too excited to sleep the night before elections. I will always be grateful to them for illustrating the important stuff, like how to care about other people.

The bone I have to pick with them involves treating finances like a weird old aunt they had hidden away in the attic. I knew she existed but was never privy to the details of her captivity.

In no particular order, here are four things I wish they'd shared with me:

1. Start early

I wish my parents had emphasized the importance of investing early. As in, the moment I was able to scrape together an extra $10. I may have thought of myself as broke as a young adult, but I always had money for a movie or ball game. If I had started 25 years ago and invested a mere $10 a week on the stock market and earned 8% interest, it would be worth almost $40,000 today. And that's if I never increased my weekly contribution.

As a kid, I often accompanied my folks to the bank. I loved the fact that they seemed to know everyone and I was frequently offered candy from one of the many candy bowls scattered around the lobby. Any of those visits would have been a great opportunity for my parents to sit me down with a bank employee and have them walk me through a simplified version of investing -- or even teach me about compound interest. 

2. It's not all or nothing

My father was a Marine and never thought he would live to be an old man. As a result, my parents lived far below their means because he wanted to invest every extra penny and make my mother a wealthy widow. They didn't buy new cars, furniture, or splash out on any of the other niceties of life. After my dad retired from the military and my mother left government work, they stopped traveling to exotic places. 

I learned to associate financial responsibility with a spartan existence. It would have been nice if I had learned that it's OK to do nice things for yourself, even as you invest. As with most things in life, being financially responsible involves balance.

3. Count on yourself

This is a sensitive one, but my father hoped that I would "marry well." I'm not saying that my parents didn't have big hopes for me personally, but I know how relieved my dad was that I married a man with ambition. That way, no matter how much I screwed up, I'd have a strong, capable man to take care of me. 

Parents, I'm here to tell you: That's a terrible message to send to your daughters. You don't even have to say it aloud. You can say other things that convey the same message. Telling your daughter that it's OK to give up a career she loves to follow her significant other across the world because "he earns so much more" is not cool. Advising her to take on the role of supporting player is not smart -- 50% of marriages end in divorce. 

What I wish my parents had said instead was, "Be a good partner, but also look out for your own financial interest. That way, if you ever find yourself alone you won't have to worry about money."

4. Bad stuff will happen

I knew about war and famine and other issues going on in the world. What I was shielded from was a truth closer to home: Bad stuff happens. People lose their jobs, interest rates skyrocket and make it darn near impossible to buy anything, gas prices go through the roof, and the stock market goes through peaks and valleys. Because finances were so hush-hush in our home, I was ill-prepared for pretty much every financial difficulty. 

I'm not saying that they should have scared the everloving wits out of me, but I wish I'd learned earlier on about the value of having an emergency fund saved up in my bank account so that I wasn't so inclined to panic when hard times hit.

Time passes quickly (like, really quickly)

Would I have listened if my parents had told me that I would wake up one day and realize I have more years behind me than in front of me? Would that have changed the way I approached finances? Would I have been a better investor in those early years? Honestly, I'm not sure, but it would have been an interesting conversation to have.

I find it interesting that my husband and I made many of the same financial mistakes with our children that I accuse my parents of making. We never wanted them to know when we were in a financial pinch. I suspect it was because, like my parents, we wanted to protect them from the harsh realities of life. Like them, everything we did, we did out of love.

I was lucky to have parents who put braces on my teeth, made sure I enjoyed a biannual trip to JCPenney for school clothes, and made me feel safe. Aside from the fact that I had to learn about finances the hard way and am not currently sipping an espresso in a piazza in Rome, life didn't turn out so bad.

Topics: Banks

MOVED 3 Budgeting Apps That Work

Posted by Dana George on Dec 29, 2019 6:00:00 AM

Even if you've never budgeted, these apps make it easy. 

This may be the nerdiest of all confessions: I love a good budgeting session. Long before I knew what I was doing with money, there were few things I enjoyed more than sitting down with pen and paper and constructing a personal budget. Having a budget -- whatever budgeting method you choose -- is essential if you want to manage your money and meet your savings goals. 

It was Christmas come early when I realized that there are apps to help with budgeting. I've been doing it the same way for so long I wasn't sure how I would adapt, and yet I was eager to test-drive a few.

Bespectacled middle-aged man looking at phone while sitting at desk covered in papers.

Here are three very different budgeting apps that may take some of the sting out of organizing your finances:


Mint is one of the earliest budgeting apps and has evolved to include just about everything you could possibly want. It comes to us from Intuit, the good folks who brought us TurboTax and Quicken, and so it covers all your financial bases.

While I like the fact that you can connect the app to all your bank accounts, as well as your credit cards and some utility companies, I also understand that some people may be hesitant to do this. I'd recommend at least linking it to the checking account you normally use to pay bills. The process may sound intimidating, but the app walks you through each step and makes it easy.

Creating categories lets you look back at the end of the month and see where the bulk of your money is going. Another neat feature is that you can manually track your spending, so even if you don't connect your accounts, you'll still have a record of what you've paid for. The Mint app allows you to take care of multiple financial chores, including paying your bills. And if you prefer not to pay them through the app, it'll email you a reminder of what's due.

Mint also helps you track your investments, see an updated monthly credit score, and set financial goals. Ultimately, though, what makes Mint famous is its budgeting capability and the fact that you can personalize yours down to the smallest detail.

There is no fee to use the Mint budgeting app. 


If you're a fan of envelope budgeting, you'll like this app. Goodbudget is a sophisticated way to divvy up your monthly income into different envelopes in order to stay on track. For example, one category (or envelope, if you will) allows you to include all things transportation-related, including the monthly payment on your car and maintenance costs. Another may be for groceries or piano lessons. As the month goes by, you take money out of the corresponding virtual envelope for each expense. You can see when the envelope is getting low, and the goal is to stop taking money out before it's empty. 

There's a free plan, or you can spring for the $6 per month (or $50 per year) "plus" plan.  The free plan allots you a total of 20 budgeting envelopes and allows you to use the program on two devices. With the plus plan, you get an unlimited number of envelopes and can use the program on up to five devices. 

Unlike the other two budgeting apps covered here, Goodbudget does not sync with your bank accounts. You must manually enter each transaction as it occurs or import recent banking activity by uploading MS Money or Quicken files. 

Goodbudget is best for those who are dedicated to adjusting their budgets as they go along, visual learners who like to see where their money is going, and folks who are uncomfortable linking their financial accounts to a budgeting app. 


One of the strangest apps I came across also stole a little piece of my budget-loving heart. It's called Albert and it's perfect for anyone who swears there is no way they can save money. 

Here's how it works: Like the Mint app, you link your accounts to Albert. Using a proprietary algorithm, Albert pores over your income, spending, and budget. Based on that information, it figures out how much you can safely save each month. The cool part is that Albert automatically transfers that money into Albert Savings, an FDIC-insured savings account. The transfers range from $5 to $30 (depending on your overall financial health) and take place two or three times each week.

Does the idea of Albert making that decision for you make you nervous? That's OK. You can instead opt to tell Albert how much to put in savings each week and withdraw funds anytime without ever having to pay a fee. The basic Albert app is free to use.

If you want to get really fancy, you can add on Albert Genius. Genius members can find answers to questions like, "Which car manufacturer offers the best warranty?" There's no set price per se, but you're asked to pay what you think is fair. The suggested minimum is $4 per month. 

Albert users with a free plan get a bonus of $0.25 for every $100 in their savings account over the course of a year, and those who've signed up for Albert Genius get $1 for every $100 in savings. Bonuses are paid at the beginning of each month and can amount to 1% annually. 

If you're not sure which budget app is right for you, take one -- or all -- of these for a trial run. Be warned, you may have a tough time deciding on just one because they each have something good to offer. 

Topics: Banks

MOVED Most Americans Think They're Disciplined With Money. Here's Why They're Not

Posted by Elizabeth Aldrich on Dec 28, 2019 8:00:00 AM

We might be overconfident when it comes to our money habits.

People often struggle to know whether or not they're on track financially. How do you know if you're saving too much or too little? Are you really ready to take on a mortgage? The answers to these questions are rarely clear-cut.

It's difficult to gauge your financial situation if you don't take the time to lay out all of your finances, develop clear goals, and track your progress regularly. Unfortunately, research by The Ascent on personal financial habits shows that the average American spends little to no time on their finances. When you consider this, along with some other startling statistics, it's not so surprising that most Americans are well behind where they should be -- even though they generally feel positive about their financial discipline.

Woman looking at her much larger and stronger-looking shadow.

Americans are financially overconfident -- but they're still behind on saving

The numbers don't lie. Americans are overconfident when it comes to being financially disciplined. The financial habits study found that 59% of those surveyed felt they were financially disciplined, but their savings accounts told a different story.

Only 21% of Americans are confident they have enough funds to stay afloat beyond three missed paychecks. This means that for the majority of the country, one mishap could send their family into debt.

And although you may have the best intentions when it comes to financial discipline, it's important that your actions reflect your intent. The average American spends less than two minutes each day managing their finances, which is only about one hour per month. 

The secret to managing money well is setting aside time in your weekly routine to check in with your spending, budget, savings, and other financial goals. With so little time spent focusing on finances, it's no wonder that Americans are neglecting their savings accounts.

Why emergency funds are crucial to financial stability

An emergency fund is meant to cover any major unexpected financial blow, which can include anything from car repairs and veterinary bills to the loss of a job or a temporary disability. Its main purpose is to prevent you from having to borrow money during an emergency situation, which could land you in expensive debt.

During a financial emergency, you're likely to already be in an emotional state. Having an emergency fund allows you to make necessary financial decisions without the added stress of trying to produce money out of thin air or having to borrow at high interest rates.

An added benefit is that a well-padded emergency fund can enable you to take advantage of more risky opportunities -- like starting a small business, accepting a better job offer, or investing in a rental property. You can start a new adventure without worrying that one mistake will land you in long-term debt.

How to buckle down and build a healthy emergency fund

We could all benefit from spending more time on our finances. The study shows that the average American spends almost 100 times more time per month watching TV than they do working on their personal finances. But these poor financial habits can be unlearned.

Make a commitment to put your finances first. Set aside a specific time each week to review your finances in detail.

Set clear and attainable financial goals. One of your first major goals should be to save at least six months' worth of basic living expenses. These funds will serve as your emergency fund and should be set aside before you begin saving for any other big purchases.

Create a budget that will help you build your emergency fund. Calculate how much you can afford to save each month and how long it will take to reach your goal. Identify areas in your monthly spending where you can cut back to increase your savings. Write your goal and deadline in your planner and put it in your phone. The more places there are where you can visually see your goal, the more likely you'll be to stick to your plan. 

Set up automatic deposits that move money into your savings account each month. It's best to set the automatic deposit date for right after you'll receive your paycheck. This way you'll pay yourself first and avoid spending that money elsewhere throughout the month.

When you have your plan in place, evaluate your progress weekly and adjust your plan as needed. Look at how you can maximize your savings. For example, you can use a high-yield savings account for better returns on your money. You can also transfer leftover money at the end of the month from other budget categories to build your emergency fund even faster.

Building healthy financial habits takes time and dedicated action. But that upfront effort can give you an important safety net in case your family gets hit with unexpected expenses.

Topics: Banks

MOVED 5 Financial Habits You Should Start in 2020

Posted by Lyle Daly on Dec 27, 2019 10:00:00 AM

These habits can make a big difference to your financial situation.

The start of the year is when many consumers decide that they're going to get better with money, but that's a lot easier said than done. Without a solid game plan for how you'll improve your finances, you could fall back into the same old patterns.

That's why it's important to focus on building positive new habits. And there are several effective financial habits that can help you save more and spend less.

Bird's eye view of an older couple examining a spreadsheet and using a calculator.

1. Set up automatic transfers to your savings after every paycheck

If you keep getting to the end of the month and discovering that you don't have any extra money to save, it could be because you're not making your savings a priority. When saving is the last item on the agenda, it's also the most likely to be pushed to one side.

The solution is to move saving money to the top of the list by making it the first thing you do after you get paid. And by setting up automatic transfers between your bank accounts, there's no risk of forgetting.

You don't need to save a lot if money's tight. Even a small amount is better than nothing, and once you start saving, you'll be more motivated to increase how much you save when you're able.

2. Use a rewards credit card for all your spending

When you have the option to pay by credit card, there's little reason to go with a debit card or cash. Rewards credit cards allow you to earn cash back or travel points on your spending. You won't get anything back by paying cash, and most debit cards don't earn purchase rewards, either.

That's a huge advantage, so it makes sense to use a rewards card on any purchases where credit card payments are accepted without a fee.

3. Set up savings targets for future expenses

You probably plan ahead and make sure you have enough money to pay all your monthly bills, such as rent, gas, and internet service. But what about those expenses that don't arrive on a monthly schedule? If you have a car, it's going to have maintenance and repair costs. If you want to go on a vacation, that's going to cost you some money.

It's important that you have money ready for these future expenses. The best way to do this is to estimate how much you'll need and when you'll need it. That's your savings target, and you can then break down how much you need to save per month to cover that expense.

4. Review your spending monthly

When you don't keep an eye on your expenses, it's easy to lose track of how much you're spending. You could end up spending much more than you realize on shopping, meals at restaurants, and other discretionary expenses. Another common occurrence is paying for all kinds of subscription services that you rarely use.

A monthly review of your credit card bills and banking statements is a good way to keep your spending in check. Here's what you should look for:

  • Have you been doing too much unnecessary spending? Focus on reining that in next month.
  • Are you paying for any services you don't need? Cancel them. Don't wait, because then it's more likely that you'll forget.
  • Have the prices gone up on any monthly services you pay for? Call to see if you can negotiate a better deal or shop around for other providers.

5. Put at least 10% of your income towards your retirement

A large retirement nest egg is a must, and many Americans aren't saving nearly enough. Unless you want to work your entire life, you should set aside at least 10% of your income specifically for retirement. Note that 10% is just a minimum, and it's even better to save more, especially if you don't yet have much of a retirement fund.

Here's a smart way to look at it -- if you save too much for retirement, the worst-case scenario is that you can retire even earlier than expected. If you save too little, you'll need to work past the typical retirement age, go back to work after retiring, or struggle to get by on a limited amount.

Getting on the right track financially

You don't need to do anything complicated or time-consuming to attain financial security. All it takes is making these smart money habits a part of your everyday life.

Topics: Banks