If you’re like me, you’ve dabbled into the award travel game and found yourself with a wallet – or a desk drawer – full of credit cards; many of which you aren’t using anymore.
This might have left you feeling disorganized, uneasy, and worried about making a mistake.
If you’re not careful, you could end up with a bunch of annual fees for cards your not using or worse, an account could get compromised and you end up with a bunch of fraudulent charges. That's no good.
So it’s important to be a good steward of your cards and accounts and either:
occasionally conduct an audit of your credit card situation.
I tend to like the 2nd approach (I use AwardWallet.com but not obsessively) and will usually just conduct an annual audit.
In fact, I just audited my own suite of credit cards and so I thought I’d share with you my process for identifying my cards, making cancel or “downgrade” decisions, and what new cards I’m considering applying for.
I feel like doing this has helped me to simplify my financial life, optimize my credit score, and future-proof my award travel opportunities.
Everyone has different approaches to this so I'm linking to other helpful resources that you might find useful.
If you’re not quite into award travel (aka hacking, churning, etc) then you might not have faced this issue yet. If you want to learn how to get into this rewarding – albeit time-consuming – endeavor then I suggest you check out these posts on the subject.
It should always be mentioned: never carry a balance on a card, pay them off in full each month, and avoid unwanted annual fees like the plague. All of these things kill your odds at making award travel a worthwhile pursuit anyway.
Create a Spreadsheet to Organize Your Credit Cards
To get started with your audit it’s important to identify all of your credit card accounts. You may have misplaced a card or two through the years and forgot about accounts. There are several ways to find all of your accounts. Start with what’s in your wallet. “What's in your wallet?” Heh!
On the sheet, you could add columns for issuer, card name, open date, expiration date, owner (if tracking for both you and your spouse), credit limit (log into your online account or call the issue to find this info), annual fee, and any relevant notes about rewards. List out all of the information that's going to be helpful for you to make decisions.
Once you work through the cards in your wallet, go to your safe, financial files, junk drawer, old purses, or wherever you keep those other cards and add them to the sheet.
Taking Action With Your Annual Review: Cancel, Downgrade, or Keep?
Once you are confident in your inventory of cards it’s time to make some decisions. Should you keep all of the cards? Cancel some and close the account? How do you decide?
This is really a case by case scenario, but here are a couple of rules I tried to follow:
1. I keep my oldest 2 cards active even if I’m barely using them. My oldest cards give my credit history a longer file and help with my score. I usually keep these cards around and have a Netflix type of charge going to them – paying them off in full, automatically each month, of course.
2. If an old card has an annual fee I would call and ask to downgrade the card to a card in the issuer's offerings that doesn’t have an annual fee. For instance, I had a Citi AAdvantage Platiunum card from Citi and I downgraded that one to the Bronze card, which isn't really publicized.
3. For newer cards (1-5 years old) I call and cancel the card and ask to have the credit balance transferred to another card I have at that issuer – one that I’m keeping. Alternatively, if the card was the only card that I had from that issuer and I wanted to maintain some perk (free bags) I would probably downgrade the card.
The bottom line: get rid of fees or unwanted cards while maintaining history and credit limits.
It's possible you may be unsure about what rewards your cards provide? A new tool I discovered that will help you analyze what rewards you have and where to use your cards for maximum value is Birch Finance. They won the FinTech competition at FinCon last year. They are in beta at the time of this article, but you can still sign up and check them out.
Once you’ve played out these decisions on paper, it’s time to call the issuers (using the number on the back of the card) and take action. Proceed with the plan, but consider the suggestions of the agent on the line. They may be willing to waive annual fees (allowing you to keep a card around just a bit longer) or they may know of an undisclosed downgrade option. They also may be aware of other accounts you have with them that you might not have picked up on during your inventory.
I won't bore you with the details, but I made quite a few decisions with my audit. You can see the final list of cards here in my current tracking sheet:
Highlights include canceling all of our airline cards (Southwest, American Airlines, and British Airways) in part so we can reapply for the Companion Pass soon, canceling a couple of hotel brand cards, and canceling one of our oldest cards: a store card from Pottery Barn (that was long overdue).
What’s Next? New Cards on the Horizon
Auditing your cards allows you to identify gaps in your strategy, opportunities for more rewards, and the act of simplifying just clears your head to be able to take on more credit.
My first move was to add another business card. The Chase INK Business Preferred is a card that pays 3 points per $1 spent on internet advertising. I'm spending a lot more with Facebook ads these days thanks to my FinCon business, so this was a no-brainer.
Additionally, I'll be adding another hotel card to the wallet soon. Finally, I'm considering a card that rewards us more for our restaurant spending. The Savor card from Capital One is looking nice with a 3% reward there.
Keeping Your Wallet Organized
Once you've got your new suite of cards established, what's the best way to keep them organized in your wallet. Here's a picture of my wallet.
I keep it pretty simple. Personal cards on the right. Business cards on the left. I have six slots and I keep my associated business debit cards behind the credit cards. Older cards are kept in a safe.
So that's how I recently organized my credit cards using a simple tracking spreadsheet and in my wallet. What is your strategy for keeping your cards organized? What do you think about my decision-making process? How would you do things differently?
This post is brought to you by Self Lender. While this post was sponsored by Self Lender, all content and opinions expressed here are my own.
PT's note: I first heard about Self Lender when a close friend asked me, “hey, is Self Lender legit?” His wife wanted to start improving her credit and wanted to know if Self Lender was a good option. It's definitely a novel concept and has that too-good-to-be-true feel. As it turns out, they are legit (I've met their team in person) and so we decided to give them the full review treatment today. Here's Emily…
Building up your credit rating can feel like an impossible chicken-or-egg scenario.
Without a proven credit history, lenders and banks are hesitant to extend credit to you—but without credit extended to you, you can’t build a proven credit history.
The classic advice for skirting this credit Catch-22 is to apply for a secured credit card. These cards require a deposit up front that will be used as collateral in case of default—which means folks with poor (or non-existent) credit can use them to improve their scores.
While secured credit cards can be a good way for you to beef up your credit rating, they aren't for everyone. Some folks don't want cards in their life. And a secured credit card requires a big, upfront deposit.
This is where Self Lender comes in. With Self Lender, you can apply for a credit builder Certificate of Deposit (CD) account to help you improve your credit history and provide you with a savings vehicle at the same time.
Here’s what you need to know about how Self Lender works and whether it will be a good fit for improving your credit score:
The Self Lender Credit Builder Account
While Self Lender offers resources that you can use to monitor your credit score and credit history, their credit builder account is the centerpiece of the platform.
This account—which Self Lender offers through one of its two bank partners, Lead Bank and City National Bank of New Jersey—is a CD-secured installment loan.
That means the FDIC-insured CD provides collateral against your loan, so the qualifying criteria are much less rigorous than what you’d find with unsecured credit cards or traditional personal loans.
No credit history is required and the loan requires no hard pull, so the Self Lender account cannot hurt your score.
Once you’ve been approved for a credit builder account, you are issued a small loan that is held in the CD until you repay it. Each plan also includes credit monitoring.
Credit builder accounts come in four possible loan amounts ($525, $545, $1,000, and $1,700) offered with either 12- or 24- month terms. You open the account with a small non-refundable activation fee of between $9 and $15, and then you make equal monthly payments for the duration of the term. At the end of the term, you receive the original amount of the loan, plus interest earned by the CD.
Credit Builder Account Options
Total Cost to You
What You Get At End of Term
$525 + CD interest
$545 + CD interest
$1000 + CD interest
$1700 + CD interest
While you are in the midst of repayment, your on-time payment history is reported to the three credit bureaus, which helps to improve your credit score. As Self Lender itself reports on its site, payment history accounts for 35% of your credit score, the single largest factor in credit calculations.
Once you have paid off the loan, the CD matures and unlocks with earned interest, which means you’ve built your credit and your savings at the same time.
Self Lender Conditions and Fees
Currently, the credit builder account is available in 47 states. Unfortunately, consumers in New York, Wisconsin (like me!), and Vermont cannot access this part of the Self Lender platform.
It’s important to remember that the credit builder account is not free. Assuming everything goes without a hitch with your credit builder account, you will pay an APR of between 12.03% and 15.65% for your loan (better than most credit cards). This APR includes the non-refundable activation fee and the interest rate you pay. There are also additional fees and conditions to be aware of.
First, a payment that is over 15 days late will incur a late fee of 5% of the payment due. Self Lender describes this as a “one-time fee,” which means there is only one late fee per month. But you could potentially pay this late fee multiple times if you are regularly more than 15 days late in making your monthly payment.
If you are more than 30 days late in making a monthly payment, it will be reported as a late payment to the credit bureaus—defeating the very purpose of the account. There is an automatic payment feature, however, which can help you to avoid late payments.
Credit builder account holders who default will have the default reported to the credit bureaus, and the account will be closed. The funds in the account will be returned once the remaining loan principal, interest, and fees have been paid.
Is Self Lender Right For You?
According to credit expert Jason Steele, “this program definitely has a place for people who want a financial vehicle to build credit, but don't want or need a credit card. Clearly, many credit card users overspend and incur debt, which isn't a factor with Self Lender.”
The fact that borrowers also end up with a large windfall of cash once the term is complete is also a big potential benefit, depending on your money psychology. If you are the sort of person who has trouble keeping track of small amounts of money, but you are pretty responsible with big sums (like your annual tax refund, for instance), then a Self Lender credit builder account could be a great fit.
However, Steele points out that there are some drawbacks to the credit builder account:
“There's the $9-$15 to open an account, as well as the fact that your 12 or 24 monthly payments will add up to more than the CD you are receiving. For example, you can make 12 $150 payments for a total of $1,800 to receive a CD of $1,700, so you are paying $100 more than you will eventually receive.”
If you are capable of responsible spending with a secured credit card with no annual fee, then Steele recommends that option in addition to Self Lender. A secured card is free to any user who pays off the card each month and can afford the initial deposit.
Any person who just doesn't want to deal with card spending, however, will be better served with just a Self Lender credit builder account, as it takes the temptation of spending off the table, and provides a nice savings windfall at the end of the term.
The Bottom Line
The Self Lender credit builder account is not going to be the right product for everyone looking to improve their credit rating. However, for the individuals who don't want to bother with a credit card and who want to build better credit, better financial habits, and a nice little nest egg at the same, Self Lender’s credit builder account is an excellent option.
The good news: you can do both! Many folks end up with a secured card (revolving credit) and a loan from Self Lender (installment credit) to fast-track their credit repair.
This post is brought to you by FreedomPop. While this is a sponsored post, all content and opinions expressed here are my own.
I’ve long been impressed by the offerings of FreedomPop, the no-really-we’re-not-kidding FREE mobile and Internet service provider that has been disrupting the mobile service model since 2011.
While their 100% free plans might not work for every cell phone user, they also provide some excellent frugal options for those of us who want to avoid spending the GDP of a small country on their cell phone usage. (Read my full review of FreedomPop's offerings.)
And now, FreedomPop has come up with yet another way to help you stay connected for literally next-to-nothing.
For the low, low price of 1 penny, you will receive a SIM card and qualify for FreedomPop’s SIM-only phone service, which includes unlimited talk, text, and 4GB data during a trial period. Here’s what you need to know about FreedomPop’s offer:
100% Free Talk, Text, & 4GB Data with $0.01 SIM Card
When you sign up for the 1¢ FreedomPop SIM card, you receive an already-activated SIM card in the mail that can be inserted into any unlocked Android or iPhone device. The SIM card supports Android 4.1+ and iOS 8.2+. Shipping is free, which means that 1¢ really means 1¢.
So what do you get for that single penny? That first month will give you 100% unlimited talk and text, as well as 4GB of data. Your phone will be using the Nationwide 4G LTE Network, so you know you’ll have excellent connectivity.
Downgrade to the 100% Free Basic Plan After Your Trial Month
Unlike many mobile service providers, FreedomPop does not require any contracts and it levies no termination fees (or any of the other don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-way-out fees), which means your free trial month truly is free.
After the month ends, you have several options for continuing with FreedomPop’s service, including the option of downgrading to their 100% Free Basic Plan. As long as you downgrade to the 100% Free Basic Plan within 30 days of starting your free trial, you’ll enjoy continuous free service. Try FreedomPop for free.
The 100% Free Basic Plan offers you 200 voice minutes, 500 texts, and 200MB of data per month—which you’ll probably recognize as fairly low talk, text and data numbers. In particular, the 200MB of data would be insufficient for anyone who has regular data needs, including anyone who streams music or podcasts from their phones.
FreedomPop specifically states that their free service is meant for light users, which translates to being able to check email and browse Facebook on the go rather than watch YouTube videos in all of your downtime.
Other Costs to Factor In
So if you’re interested in free mobile connectivity, you might be worried about what happens if you go over your data allotment.
Once you get to the final 100 MB of data usage in a given month, FreedomPop automatically charges you $15 to “top up” your plan. You can be charged for up to seven $15 top-up credits per month, and then the account is suspended.
Users do receive an email notifying them of the imminent automatic charge, giving them the opportunity to opt out of it before the charge hits their account. You can also opt out of the auto-charge entirely on the FreedomPop website: Set Billing > Billing Settings > Automatic Top Up > Enabled to No. When you disable the auto top-up feature, FreedomPop charges $5 to your account to cover any accidental overage for the month.
You can pay $0.02 per additional MB of data that you use. This option is potentially pricey, as you will automatically be charged this amount if you go over your data usage once you have turned off the top-up option. You can receive email alerts that you are about to overspend your data, but those alerts cost an additional fee per month.
You can invite friends to join FreedomPop through a program called Freedom Friends. For every friend who signs up and sticks with the service, you receive an additional 50 MB of data per month, up to a maximum of 500 MB of data per month.
You can complete offers, take surveys, and download software in order to earn free data from FreedomPop.
SIM Card Pre-Paid Plans
For any users who know that the Free Basic Plan simply won’t be enough talk, text, and data, there are several additional paid options:
Free every month
$13.99 per month
$22.99 per month
$24.99 per month
$29.99 per month
$34.99 per month
You can change your plan anytime with no penalty, and with no contract and no commitment, you can also cancel anytime.
The Bottom Line
FreedomPop’s basic service with the one-cent SIM card is completely free, which makes it an excellent option for anyone who is sick of paying exorbitant fees to their mobile service providers.
Once the trial period ends, you will need to either keep careful track of your data usage to ensure the service remains free—or you can choose one of their very reasonable monthly plans and stay connected for less. Either way, it’s an excellent value.
Editor's note: PT here. I'm happily paying BillFixers $27 a month ($324 in total) for the next year. Why? Because they saved me a total of $648 on my Internet service with AT&T! To see how BillFixers could work for you, check out our full review below…
Bills, bills, bills!
They can seem never-ending.
From your cable bill to your lawn service, they just keep piling up.
I am always looking for different ways to lower my bills and looking for additional ways to save. But with everything else I have going on in my life, it can be challenging to find the time to find better options.
I put it off and put it off and before I know it, it is a year later and I am still paying the same amount.
When you read articles about budgeting, there are a lot of suggestions for lowering your bills or simply getting rid of them.
Many financial experts will encourage you to cut your cable cord and switch to Netflix. This may not be something you want to do. You may truly enjoy your cable service.
So, what if you want to keep these costly bills but still save money?
About 2 months ago I attempted to lower my cable bill. I was on hold for about one hour before I was able to talk to an actual person. I indicated that I was considering changing providers if they were not willing to lower my bill. That conversation was so frustrating I eventually gave up and switched providers anyway.
But what if there was a service that could negotiate anything for you? Even though everything is negotiable, it can take time and persistence to reduce your bills. Having a service to do this for you could save you a lot of stress.
BillFixers was created for busy consumers. When you call your cable company or phone provider, you can be on the phone for hours.
Julian and Ben Kurland, two brothers in Nashville, TN, decided they were fed up with that system. Sure, you can get lower prices if you're willing to put in the time to negotiate, but that means many customers are overcharged. So the Kurlands decided to develop a solution that helps the average consumer. They wanted to take money out of corporations’ pockets and give it back to their customers. BillFixers was born.
How Does BillFixers Work? Plus, BillFixers Cost.
It is as simple as uploading your bill to the site and letting BillFixers negotiate for you. There is no fee, all you have to do is split the savings with them.
Once they have lowered your bill, they will send you an email with how much they have saved you. BillFixers charges you 50% of what they save you for all personal accounts. You can choose how you would like to be billed. You can pay in advance for the whole year, or you can pay monthly.
Here's the email they sent PT:
BillFixers will send you an invoice depending on the direction you choose to go. If you decide to cancel your service within that first year and have pre-paid, they will reimburse you your prorated amount.
Your information is also completely secure with BillFixers. The company uses 128-bit encryption when receiving information. They will only use your information to negotiate your bills. They will not sell your information to other companies.
And in addition to the bill-negotiation part of the business, BillFixers also contributes regularly to their blog to give you the latest news and savings tips. This could be another helpful resource for lowering other bills you may not have attempted.
The Advantages of Having BillFixers Negotiate for You
BillFixers Negotiates Several Types of Bills–The company normally works its magic on your cell phone, internet, TV and radio, cable, home security and surveillance, and some subscriptions services. But if you have another type of bill that is a thorn in your side, it may be worth submitting. This could save you hundreds of dollars on your bills every year. You could use that money toward your retirement savings or financial goals that you are working toward.
The Process is Hassle-Free–All you have to do is submit your bills to BillFixers electronically and the company will call your service provider using the information you have given them. If you feel uncomfortable letting BillFixers call under your name, you can add them as an authorized user. In order to do this, you may need to call your service provider. This could take a little extra time but may give you peace of mind if you are concerned about someone having access to your information.
You Are in Complete Control of Potential Upgrades–If BillFixers is offered an upgrade or contract renewal when they call your service provider, they will send you an email before they continue or add additional services. They will never change your account without your permission. They are simply calling to get your bill lowered, not making adjustments to your services.
Uploading Your Bills is Easy–You can simply upload your bill electronically. You will need to upload the PDF version of your bill and submit it. This makes the process seamless and super simple to accomplish when you are on a time crunch.
BillFixers Can Help You Cancel Services, Too–If you hate dealing with the retention department when you decide to finally cut the cord on any of your services, BillFixers is happy to cancel your services, too. Rather than have to fend off countless discount offers to tempt you to just stay with your service providers, BillFixers will call and cancel your service for you for a flat fee of $25. If you don’t want to worry about the backlash of you canceling your service, hiring BillFixers could put you at ease.
BillFixers Also Works with Business Accounts–Running a business can be challenging and very time-consuming. Not only does BillFixers work on personal accounts, they will work on business accounts. There is a different fee structure for these accounts. Contact their business department for more information.
BillFixers Complaints: Some Potential Caveats to the BillFixers Offerings
Not All Bills Can Be Negotiated–There are certain bills that BillFixers would like to help you with but may not be able to currently. These include medical bills, past due bills, interest rates, mortgages, credit card payments, insurance claims, and rent payments. They are hoping to expand their services in the near future to include more of these types of bills. Be sure to check out the list of bills they can negotiate before submitting your request.
The Savings Calculator May Not List Your Service Providers–BillFixers provides a calculator on their site that allows you to see your possible savings if they were to negotiate your bill. Unfortunately, there were only two cable providers listed for my area, and mine was not one of them. That meant I was not able to enter my cable provider to get an accurate calculation. However, I was able to use the calculator on my cell phone provider. BillFixers calculated that they could save me about $15 off my phone bill, which would come to $180 over the course of the year, minus their fee.
It Can Take Up to One Billing Cycle to See the Difference–Sometimes your savings doesn’t happen immediately. It may take at least one billing cycle for you to see a reduction in your bill. This is important to keep in mind because you may be disappointed if you don’t see your savings come off of your bill right away.
Could BillFixers Change the Way We Manage Our Bills?
BillFixers could make a big difference in your bottom line while giving you the gift of time. If you want to save money but don’t like picking up the phone to call your service providers, BillFixer could be the way to go.
You finish school, you find a spouse, and you want to set up camp. Everyone’s doing it! Well, not everyone, but there’s a reason this common pathway exists. It works and it fulfills basic human desires.
I certainly wanted to buy a house once I got married. I wanted to “participate in the real estate market.” “Yeah, bro!”
I will admit now that buying a house to live in isn’t the best way to participate in the real estate market. But it is A WAY.
And that fact didn’t stop me from wanting a home. And it isn’t going to stop young Americans from wanting the same thing.
There are too many homes up for grabs and only so many landlords to go around. Someone has to do some buying. And the market will adjust (either through prices, regulation, format, or some combination of all of these) and people will want to buy.
The act of the home purchase will continue to be a part of the American dream. And…buying a house CAN make you wealthy.
Buying a House – If Done Right – Has a Side Effect of Making You Wealthy
There’s no getting around it, the majority of houses appreciate over time, and this creates a large amount of wealth for a large number of people.
Exact numbers are hard to come by (due to changing home sizes and other factors) but historically, houses appreciate on average 3-4% each year.
And because the vast majority of homeowners put all of their “investment” into their house, they tend to credit this as being the source of their wealth. And it is.
For most people, their home is their greatest asset and given the appreciation they see throughout their lifetime (4% each year), it’s no wonder they feel positive about it.
Good for us!
The problem with this situation is that some people think that because home ownership creates some wealth for many, it must be the key to wealth for everyone. This leads, in part, to things like the subprime housing crises of the '00s.
Just because a house creates wealth for many, it doesn’t mean it was the best path they could have taken, and it doesn’t mean it’s best for everyone.
Buying a house is not the best way to build wealth. It’s just the most popular. @ptmoney
Here’s why it works. A mortgage is somewhat of a forced savings account. And for a majority of people, it’s the only tool strong enough to allow them to stash some money way (albeit in their home) long enough to amass wealth. It satisfies both the desire to spend and “save”.
I’ve purchased two houses in my life and thanks to some strong appreciation in my area, they have helped to make me wealthy (on paper at least). I’m not complaining. But I also realize what I've missed out on.
Buying a House is Not the Most Efficient Way to Build Wealth – Investing in the Stock Market Is Better
Historically, the stock market has returned an average of 7% annually. Real estate appreciates on average 4% annually. Stocks win. If you want your money to grow as fast as possible, you would put your money in the stock market (or a business) vs a house. End of story.
If you are pursuing FI/RE, and want to get there as fast as possible, you would be better off skipping home ownership and investing the money you would have used for a down payment and mortgage payments (and home improvements and repairs and taxes and insurance – ha).
But getting to FI ASAP isn't everyone's goal. My story even shows that you can beat the averages and actually come out ahead over something like a 10 year period.
My Story: AKA The 10 Year Counter-Anecdote
To add a real-world example, I'm going to share my story with homeownership.
I purchased my first house in 2007 for $205K. I put 20% ($41K) down. At the time, my wife and I were newlyweds and didn’t have kids yet – DINKs. You can read more about how we purchased this home here.
In 2012, we decided we wanted to move across town – closer to a school we wanted our kids to attend and into a house with a yard. At the time, our house value was about the same as when we purchased (i.e. it rebounded from the housing crises of late 2007/2008).
But, the value wasn’t enough for us to sell with the help of a Realtor and come out ahead. I didn’t want to “lose”. So we held on the house and converted it to a rental property.
Then, we purchased our next house for $250K and put another 20% ($50K) down.
The first home is now worth $325K (6% average annual gain over 10 years), and the second home is now worth $384K (9% average annual gain over 10 years).
Had I taken my $41K in 2007 and my $50K in 2012 and invested it, they would be worth $60,000 and $88,500, respectively. That's an annual average gain of 3.6% and 10%, respectively. (calc used for this)
2007 House 6% > 2007 Investment 3.6%
2012 House 9% Just because it isn't an efficient path to wealth, it doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. There's more to life than money, after all.
Owning the place you reside – your home – has many benefits. For starters, you get to call all the shots (within HOA and municipality rules, of course). Want a new floor covering? Do it. Want a pool in the backyard. Go for it.
Having a home gives you a sense of putting down roots, nudging you to invest in the community and culture of those around you. Sure, you can still do this by renting, but I argue that it's more common amongst homeowners to “own” their relationships with neighbors and other community members and organizations.
Having a home is also a natural way to diversify your assets. Most people will never become a real estate investor or buy a REIT or buy real estate in another way, so a home is a way to hedge against the rest of your finances.
Buying a Home the Right Way
If you're going to buy a home, here's the best way to do it:
First, be at a place in life where it makes sense to make this kind of investment. For most people, this will be when they have a stable career, they are married, and they have the majority of the kids they are going to end up with.
Because of the public school system, people that meet this description have a high likelihood of remaining in their home for 15+ years. Given the cost of buying/selling a home (closing costs, realtors, repairs, etc.) it makes a big difference in the overall cost of ownership if you can stay in your home a long time.
Second, once you decide you're ready to buy, you'll want to have as much money as possible towards the purchase. At a minimum, you'd want 20% to avoid PMI, give yourself some cushion against market downturns, and to simply prove that you are ready for homeownership.
Of course, saving 20% is no small feat. For many people, it requires sacrifice in your budget, implementing an automatic savings plan over a long time, and even adding new streams of revenue.
To encourage you to save your 20% I would find some accountability.
For me, back in 2007, it was other personal finance blogs that motivated me.
Today, you can still follow your favorite blogs, podcasts, or Youtubers for inspiration, and you can even join a special movement dedicated to helping you save your downpayment. It's called the Down Payment Movement. Head to www.downpaymentmovement.com, sign up for free, and start saving your way towards a healthy down payment.
So what's your take? Are you pursuing FIRE and homeownership at the same time like me? Or are you on the fast track?
In the marketing industry people often talk about selling the benefits (“hey, look how this thing can change your life”) vs the features (“hey, look at this thing with all the bells and whistles – here’s how to use it”).
I’ve always been more of a features guy myself.
I want to know the steps involved and understand the individual components that go into whatever it is I’m buying.
Leave out the fluff.
When it comes to “buying” the idea of fixing my finances I’ve always jumped ahead to think about the numbers involved, the tools I’d need, and the steps that are needed.
Sure, the idea of my why was always there, but I blow right past it like a kid on Christmas morning knocking over the nativity scene just wanting to get to the goods.
Looking through my archive of posts you can certainly find glimpses of my “why”, but I’ve never stopped down to tackle it all in one article. I have no doubt that my messages have fallen on deaf ears for some simply because I don’t include more of this. Oh well. That’s who I am.
But that’s why I’m going to explain my “why” today. So, here’s why it is that I’ve chosen to understand my finances, get rid of debt, start saving more, save for retirement, and pursue wealth (i.e. master my money).
Here’s why I’m on this journey:
I Value My Independence
Independence is arguably my highest value. The desire to call all the shots, direct my life, and have autonomy in my decisions.
Independence means you can eject yourself from the well-worn seat society creates for you…to be different, achieve greatness, and live a richer life.
I reject the idea that Independence is some type of negative value. Being independent means I’m able, I’m not dependent, I’m not a burden, and I’m able to have a high impact on my life and those around me with my decisions if I choose to.
My independence has allowed me to start another business (FinCon) that’s helped thousands of people like me build businesses so they can help millions of others with their financial pursuits.
My independence has allowed me to give more to family, my Church, and charity than I ever would have pursuing a different path.
My independence has allowed me to spend more time with the people that I love and care about.
When I think of independence two big moments in my life come to mind: (1) leaving home for my freshman year of college (net worth of zero) and (2) leaving the corporate world to pursue blogging full-time.
I still smile today thinking about those moments of freedom. Leaving something old to experience something new, on my own terms. Feeling like I can be in control and can now own my life, for good or bad.
I’m blessed in that I’m doing what I want to be doing with my life right now…blogging/podcasting, running my conference business, traveling, focusing on health, etc. But I know things could change and one day I might not want to do those things. Therefore, complete financial freedom is something I’m pursuing.
And just with this small taste of financial freedom I'm currently experiencing I can tell you that I'm enjoying the heck out of it! It's a ton of fun to say the least.
How to create independence: get rid of your debt, forge your own career path or start a business vs taking what the world gives you, and of course, save/invest enough money such that one day if you stopped working and decided to withdraw 4% of it annually it would be enough to live on.
No doubt I’m on this journey because the people who raised me and those whom I’ve surrounded myself with expected me to do well in life.
My parents showed me a great example. We weren’t always well off financially (we’ve lived life on both sides of the track) but my parents were always hard workers and in pursuit of more with their lives.
I knew I’d do well in life if I just tried to be like Mom and Dad. What a blessing.
When I went to college I chose Accounting as a major and chose to become a CPA like my father.
My classmates, teachers, and first employers expected a great deal out of me. I didn’t want to let them down and I wanted to prove myself to them.
I don’t think the answer is to blindly accept the expectations from others and become a people pleaser. You have to filter the expectations of others and make them your own.
But often times I think the rebel inside of us tends to reject expectation simply by default. It’s important to be aware if you’re doing that.
How to create expectation: find a mentor, surround yourself with people who see great things coming from you, and remove people in your life who aren’t moving forward or encouraging you to do so.
We Value Security
I consider myself a risk-averse person. I chose Accounting as my major after all. I like a sure thing most of the time. When I’m not obligated to others, when I’ve got money to weather the storm, I’m feeling good.
I love the feeling that if both of my businesses flopped tomorrow I’d be just fine for several years while I crafted a new plan. I love knowing that if something happened to me my family would be taken care of well into their earning years.
Speaking of family, I married someone who values security even more than I do. So Mrs. PT has been a big part of our “why” for getting rid of debt well before the math said we should have, getting life insurance, and holding off on certain business pursuits and investments when it’s not absolutely prudent. “Tap the breaks, dude!”
Money makes me feel more secure. It isn’t my only security thank the Lord.
I’m a Christian and my faith heavily influences my eternal security. But God gave me the ability to do some things here on earth to sure up my position…to take care of my family and community, and to not allow myself to burden others.
Last but not least, my faith instructs me that it’s noble to pay attention to my finances, avoid owing others too much, and to give.
I see my wealth (and my ability to create it) as a gift straight from God. He’s given me these dollars to spend in life. They are his first. I thank Him regularly of course. But I don’t stop there. I try to do honorable things with that money: give it to others in need, spend it wisely, and safeguard it for the future.
So there it is. It's not perfect. But it's the crux of what I believe and what's behind my pursuit of wealth, financial freedom, and eventually, financial independence.
I encourage you to sort out what it is that's behind your own financial pursuits. Without it, I think you allow yourself to fall prey to some of society's negative views on wealth (greed, vanity, gluttony, etc.) and give up on it. Not good. There are noble reasons to fix your finances and get ahead.
Or worse, you might find yourself living your life based on someone else's values for you. Not good either.
If you're reading this and find yourself on a similar journey, what's your why? What are your reasons for pursuing a better financial life?
When you started your first job, were you offered a 401(k) account? And if you were, did you even know what that meant?
PT's note: When I started my first big career job (nine months with KPMG out of Shreveport, LA) I never invested with the 401K! I didn't even get the match! It wasn't until I was 23 (at my second major employer) that I pulled the trigger and started investing and getting the employer match through the 401K! Agh! To think of all of the lost compound interest and free money.
Many new employees have no idea what their 401K is or how to participate in the company’s program. Employees often receive a packet of information, but probably not an explanation of the company benefits and how to contribute.
More often than not, companies make little to no effort to fully explain their 401K programs to their employees. They don’t address the benefit a 401K could have for their employees’ future. They don’t help educate them on how to choose investment options or the amount they should contribute. For most employees, how to have a balanced and well-funded 401K is a complete mystery.
If you don’t have a financial planner, you may need professional guidance regarding your financial future and your 401(k) account. It is confusing, cumbersome, and challenging to find the appropriate advice for your financial situation. If you can relate to this predicament, you may need a little help. Blooom can help to give you quality advice for your 401(k) program.
What Is Blooom?
Blooom was designed by 3 financial experts. They made a career of managing millionaires’ money, yet they recognized that the average person needed their financial advice even more. They wanted to create a tool that anyone could use, no matter what their net worth is. After all, isn’t that how it should be?
With the flood of Robo Advisors, Blooom sought out a way to stand out from the crowd. Blooom’s niche is to exclusively manage defined contribution plans which include: 401(a)s, 401(k)s, 403(b)s, 457s and thrift savings plans. They charge a standard monthly fee of $10 and don’t require a minimum investment to join. With the distress of America’s financial future, Blooom can help people take back control of their finances.
How Does Blooom Help You Manage Your Retirement Account?
Defined Contribution Management
The majority of defined contribution accounts are not managed by a financial advisor. Most financial advisors focus on other forms of retirement and taxable accounts. Blooom has found a niche that the industry had turned its back on. There are other big financial institutions that offer investment advice for employer-sponsored plans, but they often have a hands-off management approach. They will advise the investor but not manage the account. This makes Blooom stand out.
Blooom has taken ownership of this niche and made it accessible for any investor who participates in one of these plans. The other benefit of Blooom managing your account is they do not need to partner with the financial institution where your plan is held. All they need is your online credentials.
Once you sign up for an account and link your 401(k), Blooom will put your investment mix through an analysis. They visualize this by associating the health of your 401(k) with a flower. If the flower is “blooming” you are in good shape. This analysis is free but yet has extremely valuable information about your account. Blooom is banking on you seeing the value of this service and how it could benefit you on a regular basis.
Many plan participants may not be in a plan suitable for their financial needs in retirement. Blooom’s analysis will highlight what the plan lacks and identify where the participant should be based on their time horizon—that is, the amount of time until they plan to retire.
In order to keep you in the correct asset allocation, Blooom will rebalance your account and make adjustments when necessary. When some of your assets perform better than others you need to rebalance your account to make sure you have the same asset mix and risk tolerance. The market is constantly fluctuating, making it challenging to stay in the same asset mix.
Expense Ratio Audit and Customer Support
Many defined contributions plans have limited investment options. This can make internal fees higher because there are minimal options when selecting your investment mix. Blooom will evaluate and compare the most cost-effective asset mix within the constraints of your plan to lower your fees. Though your options may be limited, Blooom will try various combinations to discover the lowest fees possible. Blooom claims that it can save the average participant $113 the first year.
Blooom offers email and chat support to its customers. They are available during normal business hours. They can help you with a wide variety of questions. If you have questions outside the realm of your 401(k) plan they may be a good resource. They offer a wide variety of advice from debt repayment to the financial “what-ifs” of life. This service could be extremely beneficial depending on your financial situation and needs.
Fees They Charge
Blooom will reassess your asset mix to determine the most suitable asset allocation for your time horizon and charge you $10 a month. The fee will not come out of your plan, it will be charged to the credit card you entered when you signed up for the service.
There are no hidden fees, just $10 dollars a month to use the service. In addition, Blooom is a fiduciary, which means that they must keep the investors' best interests in mind when advising on different asset allocations. This is another benefit to working with a fee-based Robo Advisor.
Though many financial institutions require a minimum investment amount in order to work with them, Blooom has no such minimum requirement, which means it can work for anyone. Blooom's mission is to help everyone receive beneficial investment advice no matter where they are on the financial journey.
PT's note: It's 100% worth it to check out Blooom and run your 401K through their initial check. As to whether the $10/mo is worth it after that, it's hard to say. When I invested through a company 401K, I chose a target-date fund which keeps my investments in balance for me, automatically. So, I didn't need re-balancing. If you don't have access to a low-cost target-date fund or an easy way to keep things in balance in your 401K OR if you simply need more confidence in your investment choices, then I'd say the $10/mo. might be worth it.
Limited Investment Questionnaire and Allocations
When signing up for a Blooom account you will be asked a few questions. These questions include:
What is your date of birth?
When do you want to retire?
The answer to these questions will give Blooom the time horizon you are seeking. It will allow them to determine how aggressive you should be with your asset allocation. However, when creating a strong financial plan, it's important to remember that not everyone has the same risk tolerance even if they have the same time horizon. They may be more conservative with their investment strategy and not as comfortable with investing a lot of their money in stocks.
Blooom indicates that most of their clients have minimal stock exposure and are not as aggressive as they need to be. In addition, the company believes that the best investment option is US Large Cap stocks. Since this is their philosophy they may recommend a similar asset mix to the majority of their clients this may be true of the vast majority of their clients.
Blooom is correct in suggesting that their approach will work well for the majority of their clients. However, there are many factors that can play into determining your risk tolerance, and investors who are both more skittish and more willing to do some DIY research into investments may find that they prefer a different approach. For most investors, however, Blooom's approach is a solid one.
Is Blooom Right For You?
If you are in search of a Robo Advisor to help you with your employer-sponsored plan, Blooom is an excellent option for you and your investment needs. It is easy to access and the fees are reasonable. The company is passionate about helping you achieve your idea of financial success through the tools and resources they provide. Blooom may also be able to save you some money and show you what assets are costing you the most. They have years of experience to guide you to a strong financial future.
At the end of the day, Blooom can help 401(k) plan participants to better understand their investments. The more educated you are when it comes to your financial future, the better–which makes Blooom an important addition to the world of Robo Advisors.
Getting psyched to do your taxes? I suppose if you're expecting a refund you might be.
Or if you're kind of a tax nerd like me, you might take some pleasure in breaking down the tables and watching the software do its thing. Or you might be interested to see how the recent Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 will affect your tax burden.
In any of these cases, here are the tax law changes that apply to the 2018 tax year. Please note, these are the changes that affect your 2018 taxes, not the taxes you paid in 2017.
2018 Tax Law Changes
Let's start with the U.S. federal income tax brackets. Though the tax bill was unable to reduce the number of tax brackets from seven to four, as was originally proposed, it does offer mostly lower tax rates for many filers:
Married Filing Jointly
Most Single Filers
In addition, here are the other important changes that will most likely affect your taxes:
The increase in the standard deduction comes along with a repeal in personal and dependent exemptions. In 2017, that exemption was worth $4,050.
The child tax credit has doubled from $1,000 to $2,000, and the amount of the credit that is refundable has increased to $1,400. The phaseout threshold has gone up from $110,000 to $400,000 for married couples filing jointly, and from $75,000 to $200,000 for single filers.
The maximum earned income tax credit rose to $6,444, and the maximum income limit for the credit rose to $54,998.
The foreign earned income exclusion remains the same 2017 amount of $102,100.
The standard mileage rate you can expense if you use your car for business has gone up to 53.5 cents per mile.
More Details About 2018 Tax Law Changes
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 has repealed the tax penalty associated with the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), which means that people who do not buy health insurance will not longer pay a tax penalty. However, this change does not officially go into effect until 2019, so the tax penalty may still be assessed for calendar year 2018.
Increased Standard Deduction – For the tax year 2018, the standard deductions for all peeps have been upped to almost double the 2017 rates. This means the standard deduction will apply for many more taxpayers:
Married filing jointly is $24,000
Single is $12,000
Head of household is $18,000
The Saver's Credit AGI Was Increased Again – They keep making this saver's credit easier and easier to get into. The adjusted gross income (AGI) limits are now:
Married filing jointly is $63,000
Head of household is $47,250
Single filers is $31,500
Nice that they keep making it easier for folks to save through this credit. I'd love to see stats on the number of people using this credit.
Alternative minimum tax (AMT): This was originally implemented to help ensure that high-income Americans paid a fair share of taxes, no matter how many deductions they could claim. This meant that high-income households have to calculate their taxes twice: once under the standard tax system, and once under the AMT system. However, the AMT was not adjusted for inflation, so it was applying to more and more people over the years.
The new tax bill has permanently adjusted AMT for inflation, and has made the AMT amount significantly higher in 2018. The exemption amount for tax year 2018 has risen from $84,500 to $109,400 for married couples filing jointly and from $54,300 to $70,300 for individuals.
This post is brought to you by TurboTax. While this is a sponsored post, all content and opinions expressed here are my own.
I have a long history with TurboTax. They were the program I used back when I was filing taxes as a single graduate student in 2006, and they helped me throughout the life changes that followed as I got married, bought a house, had kids, and moved to two different states.
This year, I was delighted to use their new TurboTax Live product to file my 2017 taxes. TurboTax Live offers the step-by-step easy-peasy process you have come to expect from the company, but this year the program also offers you the ability to connect to a live Certified Public Account (CPA), Enrolled Agent (EA), or Practicing Attorney for personalized tax advice and answers, as well as a one-on-one review of your return. They can even sign and file for you.
Another great feature is that this is one-way video. That means no more going to a tax store. You can stay in your home and do your taxes on your time—and you don’t even have to worry if your house is messy since the video is one-way.
With TurboTax Live, the yearly chore of filing your taxes becomes an easy process—with the added assurance that a tax professional can answer your questions and double check all of your work.
User-Friendly Interface at TurboTaxLive.com
One of my favorite aspects of using TurboTax is the interface. The software allows you to complete your taxes at your own pace. Save your progress and return to complete it later. You can also jump-start your taxes by snapping a picture of your W-2 and answering a few questions. TurboTax will put the information on the correct forms, meaning you don’t have to waste time with data entry.
TurboTax Live Website
The program also imports tax information directly from over 1 million employers and financial institutions through their Autofill feature. This saves you even more time and offers increased accuracy for filers. I was pleased to find that several of my financial institutions, including Vanguard and Capital One, were included in the Autofill feature, which made things easier. (I’m not the only one who stares at 1099 forms for minutes on-end trying to figure out which box is the relevant one to my tax filing, am I?)
In addition, the program offers you an “estimated refund/amount due” number at the top of your screen, and it goes up or down as you fill in your information. There is something oddly thrilling about seeing your refund amount go up (or your amount due go down) as you claim your deductions.
Helping You Get all Your Deductions
As I worked through the software, TurboTax consistently asked me questions to make sure I was taking advantage of every deduction available to me and comparing deductions to be sure I got the best bang for my buck. While the program starts by taking you through the most common deductions, credits, and breaks, it always gives you an opportunity to see if the more uncommon situations might apply to you.
For instance, as a freelance writer, I pay estimated quarterly taxes, which many taxpayers don’t have to worry about. That meant entering my estimated quarterly taxes wasn’t in the first half of the questions I answered, but the program certainly didn’t forget to make sure I got the credit I deserved for those payments. It was a nice feeling seeing my “estimated federal balance due” at the top of the screen go down to nearly nothing once I’d filled that in.
The big innovation with TurboTax Live is the access to a live tax professional to help answer your questions and review your work. I hit a snag in my filing process when trying to figure out the medical savings account information through my husband’s work. We have not yet exhausted our 2017 savings in that account (which is a “use-it-or-lose-it” medical savings account) and I couldn’t figure out if we have some time into 2018 to spend what is left in there, or if we’re already out of luck.
I clicked the “Expert Help” button for live help, and within a couple of minutes, a friendly tax professional named Colleen called me and set up a one-way video. She helped me figure out that we needed to get the proper 1099-SA form from my husband’s employer to be able to complete our taxes, and let me know that we have until tax day to deplete our 2017 medical savings account.
Colleen did not have this information at her fingertips and had to do a little research to find it. Honestly, that made me feel a little better for being confused, and it was abundantly clear that the tax pros at TurboTax Live will go the extra mile to get the right answer even if you have an uncommon question.
The live help option is also available in Spanish.
File with Confidence
If you file with TurboTax Live, you get a 100% Accurate, Expert Approved Guarantee. This guarantee states that if you pay an IRS or state penalty or interest because of an error that a TurboTax CPA or EA made on your return, TurboTax will pay you the penalty and interest as well as amend the return at no additional cost.
To file with TurboTax Live, it costs $149.99 for federal taxes, and an additional $36.99 for your state taxes. Considering the level of professional oversight this offers, TurboTax Live is well worth the price.
Click here to get started filing with TurboTax Live.
Recognizing this fact, Experian has been offering consumer protection from identity theft for close to a decade. The latest product, IdentityWorksSM, expands the offering to protect against the latest online threats. This product provides users with credit and identity theft monitoring, daily FICO® Scores (See site for free trial details), alerts of fraudulent activity, theft insurance and a fraud resolution center. This means that you are able to detect identity theft and resolve it quickly before extreme damage is done to your credit score.
Advantages of IdentityWorksSM
Provided by an established credit bureau, Experian’s IdentityWorksSM is a very user-friendly product. Unlike other companies who offer credit monitoring and identity theft protection, the product is proactive in detecting instances of theft. The specialists on the fraud resolution team are knowledgeable and able to help with resolving problems on the call.
Likewise, IdentityWorksSM goes beyond simple monitoring and actively searches for your personal information in a myriad of places, including 600,000 pages on the dark web, criminal registries and non-credit loan applications. There are two IdentityWorksSM memberships, Plus and Premium, each of which provide you with one million dollars of identity theft insurance.
Disadvantages of IdentityWorksSM
While up to one million dollars in identity theft insurance sounds reassuring, there are restrictions listed in the fine print. Coverage may not be available to you at all, depending on your specific location.
If it is available, however, you are likely to only receive reimbursement for a select number of financial expenses related to resolving your case of identity theft. For instance, you may receive financial compensation for lost wages, replacement card costs or credit reports when the expenses were incurred as a result of identity theft resolution.
If you have homeowner's insurance or other existing policies, it may be difficult to receive any payout from this one million dollar policy.
IdentityWorksSM may also incorrectly flag your own charges as fraudulent and may delay reporting suspicious charges for several weeks or months, in some cases. As is the case with many credit monitoring and identity theft protection services, you can perform many of the actions offered, such as freezing your credit report, on your own for free with relatively little hassle.
(Disclosure: Identity Theft Insurance underwritten by insurance company subsidiaries or affiliates of American International Group, Inc. The description herein is a summary and intended for informational purposes only and does not include all terms, conditions and exclusions of the policies described. Please refer to the actual policies for terms, conditions, and exclusions of coverage. Coverage may not be available in all jurisdictions. Review the Summary of Benefits.)
IdentityWorksSM Plus Versus IdentityWorksSM Premium
There are two subscription levels provided by IdentityWorksSM, which are referred to as IdentityWorksSM Plus and IdentityWorksSM Premium. Plus is the more basic membership which costs $9.99 per month while Premium includes everything from Plus and also offers more exclusive features at $19.99 a month.
With the more basic service, you will receive credit monitoring and fraud alerts, FICO® Score tracking, dark web scanning, identity theft insurance and fraud resolution support services.
The Premium option includes all of these features as well as 3-Bureau monitoring alerts and additional identity theft monitoring for fraudulent activity. Premium monitors and reports activity on all three credit bureaus. It also detects your information on non-credit loan requests, criminal acts and sex offender registries, social security traces and change of address request forms.
The 30 Day Free Trial of IdentityWorksSM
If you are unsure about purchasing identity theft protection services, IdentityWorksSM offers a 30-day free trial period for both their Plus and Premium services. With this free trial, you are able to utilize all of the features included with the membership level you select to determine if their credit monitoring and identity theft products are right for you.
While this free trial offers you theft protection, you will also receive valuable, comprehensive information that allows you to develop a better understanding of your credit score.
If you find this service to be useful, simply purchase your desired membership at the end of your free trial period to continue receiving assistance in monitoring and protecting your identity.