A Pocket Guide to Homeowners Insurance

October 18, 2021

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Bir Grewall

Bir Grewall

Sikh American, India born; Bir is a "Top Recommended" Financial Strategist, Advisor & Author



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August 11, 2021

Saving Money With Credit Cards: The Ultimate Guide

Saving Money With Credit Cards: The Ultimate Guide

Credit cards are one of the most useful tools for saving money.

That may seem counter-intuitive. In fact, if you’re struggling with credit card debt, it might seem like an all out fantasy!

But if you have your credit cards under control, they can offer significant opportunities to save money.

Here’s your strategy guide for saving money with credit cards.

Eliminate your credit card debt. The simple truth is that credit card debt can derail your financial strategy. No matter how advantageous credit card rewards seem, they won’t offset the high interest rates that most cards feature.

So before you start leveraging the benefits a card can offer, take steps to eliminate your credit card debt completely.

The two most common strategies are the “debt snowball” and the “debt avalanche.”

Debt Snowball: Make only minimum payments on your other cards, and focus all of your financial firepower on your smallest balance. Once that’s gone, move on to the next smallest. Repeat until your debt is gone.

Debt Avalanche: Make only minimum payments on your other cards, and focus all of your financial firepower on the balance with the highest interest rate. Once that’s gone, move on to the next highest. Repeat until your debt is gone.

Another strategy is opening a new card with a 0% introductory APR. Then, use your new card to pay off your old card with no interest. This is called a balance transfer, and there are specialized cards with benefits tailored for this strategy. Check out this Nerdwallet article for a few options! (Note: Make sure you understand any fees that may be charged for a transfer.)

Build your credit score. It’s no joke—the higher your credit score, the greater the rewards you may earn. To help maximize your savings with a card, start building your credit score ASAP.

A simple step towards increasing your score is automating all of your loan payments. You can do this with your credit card, mortgages, and car loans. Once your credit crosses a certain threshold, look for cards with greater benefits. You might be surprised by the difference your score makes!

Choose benefits that align with your lifestyle. DO NOT get a travel card and then plan four international vacations to “maximize your benefits.”

Instead, choose a card that rewards you for your current habits, behaviors, and the way you live your life. It’s a chance to get something back for going about your daily routine!

Travel frequently for work or lifestyle? Consider a card that rewards you for flying or that waives foreign transaction fees.

Loyal to certain brands and stores? Look for cards that offer points for shopping with your favorites.

Above all, remember that credit cards ARE NOT FREE MONEY. The more disciplined you are with your credit card usage, the more you stand to benefit from the rewards.

Ask a financial professional about how you can leverage credit cards for your advantage. They can help you understand your financial position and develop a strategy to maximize your benefits.

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August 4, 2021

Should You Pay Off Your Mortgage Early?

Should You Pay Off Your Mortgage Early?

On the surface, paying off your mortgage seems like a no-brainer.

It’s become a staple of personal finance advice that everyone should eliminate their mortgage ASAP.

But here’s the truth—there are some drawbacks to eliminating your mortgage quickly. Read on for the pros and cons of paying off your mortgage early.

The pros of paying off your mortgage early. Your mortgage can be a serious drain on your financial resources. Those monthly payments can hamper your ability to save, build wealth, and enjoy the lifestyle you desire. It makes sense that the sooner you eliminate those payments, the sooner you’ll have the cash flow to make your dreams a reality.

You might also save a significant amount of money in interest by paying off your mortgage early. The less time your mortgage accrues interest, the less you’ll pay overall.

Perhaps most importantly, eliminating your mortgage creates peace of mind. So long as you’re paying off a mortgage, you’ll always run the risk of defaulting and losing your home. Owning your house outright can greatly reduce this danger and the stress that comes with it.

The cons of paying off your mortgage early. But eliminating your mortgage is not necessarily an unalloyed good. There are a few downsides to consider, too.

What if, instead of devoting your financial resources towards your mortgage, you saved them at a high interest rate?

There’s a chance you would actually walk away with more wealth. That’s because the sooner your money starts compounding interest, the greater potential it has to grow.

When you should and shouldn’t pay off your mortgage early. Paying off your mortgage early might be viable if your mortgage makes up a small fraction of your monthly expenses. So long as it doesn’t interfere with your other savings goals.

However, always consult with a financial advisor before you make this decision. They can determine if eliminating your mortgage quickly will derail your wealth building strategy!

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July 28, 2021

The Difference 15 Years Can Make

The Difference 15 Years Can Make

Choosing between a 15-year and 30-year mortgage is one of the most important financial decisions you’ll make.

The answer which is better for you depends on your personal situation, but there are definite pros and cons to each. In this article we’ll take a look at both types of mortgages and see what they offer along with their drawbacks so that you can make a more informed decision about which mortgage works best for you.

The 15-Year Mortgage. As the name suggests, a 15-year mortgage has payments spread over 15 years, as opposed to 30 years for the standard loan. That has two practical implications…

  • Your monthly payments will probably be higher
  • The total cost of the home will likely be lower

Those might seem contradictory. But the math is simple.

Let’s say your monthly payment for a 15-year mortgage is $1,000, while for a 30-year mortgage your payment is $750.

For the 15-year mortgage, you’ll pay $180,000 over the lifetime of your loan. For the 30-year loan, that number is $270,000, a $90,000 difference! So if you can afford the higher monthly payments, a 15-year mortgage might save you a substantial amount of cash over the long-term.

The 30-Year Mortgage. But make no mistake—the 30-year mortgage has distinct advantages of its own. How? It often offers lower monthly payments, which frees up your cash flow. That extra money can go towards saving, financial protection, and building wealth.

Not every family will have the financial resources to afford potentially higher monthly payments with a 15-year mortgage. Depending on your financial situation, a 30-year mortgage may be a better option.

The bottom line? The mortgage you choose can impact your financial security now and in the future. That’s why it’s best to consult with a financial professional before buying a home. They’ll have the knowledge you need to make an informed decision that aligns with your long-term goals.

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This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to promote any certain products, plans, or strategies that may be available to you. Any examples used in this article are hypothetical. Before taking out any loan or enacting a funding strategy, seek the advice of a licensed and qualified financial professional, accountant, and/or tax expert to discuss your options.

April 12, 2021

Home Buying for Couples: A Starter Guide

Home Buying for Couples: A Starter Guide

Buying your first home is an exciting, yet daunting process.

You and your significant other already have a lot on your plate in planning this huge purchase—from deciding how much house you need to fitting it all into a budget. Read on for some tips that will help ease the process of buying a house as well as help you save money in the long run!

Evaluate your financial situation before you start house hunting. It’s important to know what kind of mortgage payment is feasible for the income in a household. You’ll also have to contend with hidden housing costs like property taxes, renovations, and repairs. Calculate your total income, and then subtract your current expenses. That’s how much you have at your disposal to handle the costs of homeownership.

Improve your credit score. If you’re a first-time homebuyer, your credit score is important—it can profoundly affect your ability to get approved for loans and mortgages! The higher that number goes up, the easier it may become to get approval from lenders. You can help yourself out by paying off any outstanding debt balances such as student loan payments, medical bills, and credit card debt before going house hunting.

Start saving for a downpayment. As a rule of thumb, you’ll want to put down at least 20% of the home’s purchase price. This can take years, especially if your budget is tight! However, it’s well worth it—you may avoid the hassle of paying private mortgage insurance (PMI), which can substantially add to your monthly housing payments. A sizeable downpayment can also lower your interest rate and reduce the size of your loan.¹

Decide how much house you need. This is a tough question to answer, but it’s crucial that both partners are united on this front. Otherwise, one partner might feel like a house doesn’t meet their needs. Sit down with your partner and discuss what exactly you desire out of your home. How many bedrooms will you need? Do you want a big yard or a small one? How close to work do you want to live? Hammer out the important details of what you want in a home before the shopping begins!

Decide on your budget. Knowing how much you can afford before shopping for a home will help narrow down the options. Typically, housing costs should account for no more than 30% of your budget. That includes your mortgage payment, repairs, HOA fees, and renovations. Spending more than 30% can endanger your financial wellness if your income ever decreases.

Buying a home can be an exciting time for couples. But it’s important to take the necessary steps before you start house hunting. Remember, you want your new home to be a source of joy, not financial stress! Do your homework, talk with your partner, and start saving!

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“Do you need to put 20 percent down on a house?,” Michele Lerner, HSH, Sep 2, 2018, https://www.hsh.com/first-time-homebuyer/down-payment-size.html

February 24, 2021

2 Strategies to Build Credit When You’re Young

2 Strategies to Build Credit When You’re Young

The sooner you establish your credit score, the better positioned you’ll be for financial success.

Why? Because your credit score touches every aspect of your financial life—a high score can help you obtain a lower interest rate on mortgages and car loans, insurance payments, and even your rent!¹ That can help free up more cash for building wealth.

So, where do you start?

Apply for a credit card… and then use it responsibly! Credit cards are excellent tools for building your credit history. If you attend a university, you might be able to score a student credit card. However, just remember that credit cards are not free money. The less you use your credit card, the higher your credit score. Choose a few recurring expenses, and limit your credit card usage to those. Then make sure you pay off the balance every month, on time.

Use automatic payments on all your debts. Missing payments on your debt obligations can torpedo your credit score. It’s absolutely critical to pay on time for your credit card bill, student loan payments, and anything else you owe.

Consider automating all of your debt payments. It’s a simple, one-time move that can steadily reduce your balances and help boost your credit score.

As you build your credit history, you’ll be able to apply for credit in larger amounts, and you may even start receiving pre-approved offers. But beware. Having credit available is useful for certain emergencies and for demonstrating responsible use of credit—but you don’t need to apply for every offer you receive!

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January 18, 2021

3 Strategies to Increase Your Credit Score

3 Strategies to Increase Your Credit Score

Is your credit score costing you money?

A recent survey found that increasing a credit score from “Fair” to “Very Good” could save borrowers an average of $56,400 across five common loan types like credit cards, auto loans, and mortgages.¹ That’s roughly $316 in extra monthly cash flow!

If your credit score is anything but “Very Good,” keep reading. You’ll discover some simple strategies that may seriously help improve your credit score and increase your cash flow.

Pay your bills at the strategic time. <br> Credit utilization makes up a big portion of your credit score, sometimes up to 30%.¹ The closer your balance is to your credit limit, the higher your credit utilization. The lower your utilization, the less you’re using your available credit. Creditors view a lower utilization as an indicator that you’re responsible with managing your credit.

Here’s a simple way to lower your credit utilization–ask your creditors for when your balance is shared with credit reporting agencies. Then, automate your bill payments to just before that day. When credit reporting agencies review your balances, they’ll see lower numbers because you just paid them down. That can result in a lower credit utilization and a higher credit score!

Automate debt and bill payments. <br> Late payments for your credit card bill, phone bill, and utilities can negatively affect your credit score. If you have a habit of paying your bills late, consider automating as many of your payments as possible. It’s a convenient and simple way to make your finances more manageable and help increase your credit score in a single swoop!

Leave old credit accounts open. <br> So long as they don’t require a monthly fee, leave old and unused credit accounts open. Any open line of credit, even if it’s unused, increases the amount of available credit you have at your disposal. And not using that credit lowers your overall credit utilization, which can help increase your credit score.

Closing unused credit accounts does the opposite. It lowers your available credit and spikes your credit utilization, especially if you have large balances in other accounts. So if you have credit cards you don’t use anymore, leave those accounts open and hide the cards in a place where they won’t tempt you to start spending!

The best part about these strategies? You can act on them all today. Ask your creditors when your balance is shared with credit reporting agencies, then automate your deposits to go through right before that day.

When you’re done automating your payments, put your unused credit cards into a plastic bag and put them deep into your freezer. In just a few hours, you’ll have set yourself up to increase your credit score and save money!

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September 9, 2020

Life Insurance Myths

Life Insurance Myths

We love facts.

Maybe it’s a byproduct of the modern age, but many of us desire an accurate worldview that’s based on evidence and data. Who wants to live with their head in the clouds, believing myths or superstitions?

Unfortunately, there are those of us who have fallen prey to certain life insurance urban legends. Here are some common myths that many people believe and some cold, hard facts to debunk them!

Myth: Life insurance is less important than my other financial obligations <br> Here’s how the story goes. You have a spouse you love, a house you’re proud of, a reliable car, and kids you care for. All of that takes money; date nights, mortgages, and tuition aren’t cheap! It can be hard to swallow taking on another financial obligation like life insurance on top of the bills you’re already paying.

But life insurance isn’t simply another burden for you to carry. It’s an essential line of protection that empowers you to provide for your family regardless of what happens. The payout can act as a form of income replacement that can help your loved ones maintain their lifestyle, pay their bills, and pursue their dreams when they need financial help the most. Life insurance isn’t less important than your other financial responsibilities. It’s an essential tool that helps the people in your life meet their financial obligations if something were to happen to you!

Myth: Life insurance is unaffordable <br> This is an incredibly common myth, especially among Millennials; 44% overestimated the cost of life insurance by five times!(1) 65% of people who don’t have life insurance say they can’t afford it.(2) But life insurance is far more affordable than you might think. A healthy, non-smoking 25 year old could only pay $25 per month for a policy.(3) That’s about what a subscription to three popular streaming services would cost!(4) Do some online shopping and be amazed by how affordable life insurance really is!

Myth: My employer-provided insurance is enough <br> Just under half the workforce has life insurance from their employer.(5) That’s great! The more life insurance you have available to you the better. But it simply might not be enough to fully protect your family. Professionals typically advise that you purchase about 10 times your annual income in life insurance coverage. Most employer-provided life insurance gives only one to three years of protection.(6) That’s not to say you should refuse a policy through work. But you might need to get some extra protection!

Contact a financial advisor if you still have doubts or concerns. They’re full-time myth busters who will help you navigate the sometimes confusing world of financially protecting your family!

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(1) Nupur Gambhir, “9 common life insurance myths debunked,” Policygenius, March 13, 2020 https://www.policygenius.com/life-insurance/common-life-insurance-myths-debunked/

(2) “Is Life Insurance Tomorrow’s Problem? Findings from the 2020 Insurance Barometer Study,” LIMRA, June 16, 2020 https://www.limra.com/en/newsroom/industry-trends/2020/is-life-insurance-tomorrows-problem-findings-from-the-2020-insurance-barometer-study/

(3) Sterling Price, “Average Cost of Life Insurance (2020): Rates by Age, Term and Policy Size,” ValuePenguin, Aug. 10, 2020, valuepenguin.com/average-cost-life-insurance

(4) Joe Supan, “Americans already subscribe to three streaming services on average. Is there room for more?,” Allconnect, Jun 20, 2020, https://www.allconnect.com/blog/average-american-spend-on-streaming#:~:text=One%20poll%20from%20The%20Hollywood,at%20just%20over%20%2414%2Fmo.

(5) Marvin H. Feldman, “4 Things You Probably Don’t Know About Your Life Insurance at Work,” Life Happens, Sept. 22, 2017 https://lifehappens.org/blog/4-things-you-probably-dont-know-about-your-life-insurance-at-work/#:~:text=Press-,4%20Things%20You%20Probably%20Don’t%20Know,Your%20Life%20Insurance%20at%20Work&text=For%20the%20first%20time%20ever,to%20a%20new%20LIMRA%20study.

August 24, 2020

Renting vs. buying a home: Which is right for you?

Renting vs. buying a home: Which is right for you?

100 million Americans live in homes they or their families rent.

Which means about 250 million live in homes that are owned by themselves or their families.[i]

What about you? Are you a renter or an owner? If you’re thinking about making a change, take a look at these important factors when deciding to rent or own.

The Case for Ownership One very oft-cited benefit of owning over renting is building up equity. When one rents, the entire rent payment goes to the landlord, and the tenant does not own any part of the dwelling at all. With a mortgage, on the other hand, the payer receives some percentage of ownership after every payment (assuming the payment is going towards the principal rather than interest alone), eventually leading to full ownership of the property.

For those with enough capital to outright purchase a property, ownership is almost certainly the best decision financially: no money is paid to a landlord for a service that is consumed but non-saleable in the future. Even for those without sufficient capital, mortgages tend to offer low interest rates (compared to other loan products), and the buyer can usually justify the mortgage interest in return for eventual full ownership. Even if the owner decides to move before the mortgage is completely paid off, the equity that was built thus far can be recouped and used later.

Other reasons to own may include more privacy and greater ability to customize the property. There is also the feeling of stability that you won’t have to renew a contract or potentially pay higher rent during the next cycle when your lease renews.

One of the biggest drawbacks of ownership is the potential that the property value may decline, particularly when still under mortgage. If the value of the property goes down – possibly due to a natural disaster or a lot of foreclosures in your neighborhood [ii] – the equity that was built by the owner may decline, not the amount owed on the loan. Thus a substantial decrease in prices as happened in the late 2000s, could cause an owner to be in the same position financially as a renter – that is, with no equity to speak of.

The Case for Rentership For those who cannot meet ownership’s capital requirements, renting is not a choice – it’s a necessity. However, even those who would qualify for a mortgage may be better off renting, especially if they insist on flexibility. Selling a property is an involved, complex financial transaction that may take many months to complete. If you’re renting and you need to move, finding a subletter (if allowed) is a possibility, and even when not, a standard rental agreement usually only lasts one year, after which the renter may decline to renew. Thus flexibility is one of the most important factors for those who wish to rent.

And while there is usually much less customization allowable at rental properties, there may be significant benefits included in rent with utilities paid, maintenance performed, and communal facilities like gyms, pools, or laundry facilities available. For owners, maintenance, utilities, and tax bills are solely the responsibility of the owner, whereas for renters, these may be paid in part or in full by the landlord. Regarding the investment side, renters do not own the property, so they do not have to worry about losing equity if the property market decreases in value.

Some drawbacks of renting may be less privacy, not being able to build equity, and the uncertainty of future rental prices or even availability. Of course, if the rent increases too much, the renter has the flexibility to leave the property at the next cycle.

So whether you’re thinking of renting or buying, before you sign on the dotted line, examine your short and long term goals, the risks you’re willing to take, and your budget.

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May 25, 2020

Preparing to buy your first home

Preparing to buy your first home

Home buying can be both very exciting and very stressful.

Picking out your dream home is thrilling, but credit scores, applications, and mortgage underwriting requirements? Well, not so much. Don’t let yourself be deterred. Here are a few moves to make before you amp up your home buying search that will help increase the fun and decrease the stress.

Know what you can afford
One of the first steps to home buying is knowing how much you can afford. Some experts advise that a monthly mortgage payment should be no more than 30% of your monthly take-home pay. Some say no more than 25%. If you stretch past that you could become “mortgage poor”. Consider this carefully. You might not want to be in your dream house and struggling to pay the utility bills, grocery bills, etc., or find yourself in a financial jam if an emergency comes up.

Get your finances ready for home buying
If you’re scouring listings, hunting for your dream home, but you’re not sure what your credit score is – stop. There are few things more disappointing than finally finding your dream home and then not having the financial chops to purchase it. You’ll need to get your finances in order and then start shopping. Focus on these areas:

Credit score: Your credit score is something you should know regardless of whether you’re home shopping. Usually, to get the best mortgage rates, you’ll want a score in the good to excellent range. If you’re not quite there, don’t despair. If you make payments toward your other obligations on time and pay off any debt you’re carrying, your credit score should respond accordingly.

Down payment: A conventional mortgage usually requires a 20 percent down payment. That may seem like a lot of money to come up with, but in turn, you may get the best interest rates, which can save you a significant amount over the life of the mortgage. Also, anything less than 20 percent down and you may have to purchase Private Mortgage Insurance – it’s a type of insurance that protects the lender if you default. Try to avoid it if you can.

Get pre-qualified before you shop for a home
Once you have your credit score and down payment in order, it’s time to get pre-qualified for a mortgage. A prequalification presents you as a serious buyer when you make offers on houses. Mortgage pre-approval doesn’t cost you anything, and it doesn’t make you obligated to any one house or mortgage. It’s just a piece of paper that says a bank trusts you to pay back the loan.

If you go shopping without a pre-approval, expect to get overlooked if there are other bidders. A seller will likely go with the buyer who has been pre-approved for a mortgage.

Prepare your paperwork
Getting approved for a mortgage is going to require you to do a little legwork. The bank will want to see documentation to substantiate your income and lifestyle expenses. Be prepared to cough up income tax documents such as W-2’s, paystubs, and bank statements. The sooner you get the paperwork together, the easier it will be to complete the mortgage application.

Shop for the best mortgage
Mortgage rates differ slightly depending on the lender, so shop for the lowest possible rate you can get. You may wish to use a mortgage broker to help. Also, get familiar with mortgage terms. The most common household mortgages are a 30-year term with a fixed rate, but there are 15-year terms, and mortgages with variable interest rates too.

Do your pre-home-buying homework
With a little legwork early on, home buying can be fun and exciting. Get your finances in order and educate yourself about mortgage options and you’ll be decorating your dream home in no time.

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This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to promote any certain products, plans, or strategies that may be available to you. Before taking out any loan or enacting a funding strategy, seek the advice of a financial professional, accountant, and/or tax expert to discuss your options.

April 1, 2020

Banks vs. Credit Unions

Banks vs. Credit Unions

On the hunt for a new bank?

You might find yourself looking at local credit unions vs. big national banks and wondering “what’s the difference?” It turns out that there are significant differences between the two financial institutions. Here’s a quick summary of the distinctives of credit unions and banks.

Credit Unions <br> Credit unions are not-for-profit. Becoming a member makes you both a customer and a co-owner. Money that the credit union makes from car loans and mortgages gets used to help other credit union members. However, membership in a credit union can be restricted. It might require a certain religious, social, or community affiliation to join.

Banks <br> Commercial banks (we’ll just call them banks for now) are for-profit entities with one goal—make money for their shareholders. How exactly do banks accomplish that? It’s not too complicated. They loan money out to people (or you) at a high interest rate. It’s their business model: Use other people’s money to grow their own. That means the top priority for banks is getting as many customers as possible into low interest accounts while providing high interest loans.

Which one is the better fit for you? <br> It might seem like credit unions are the obvious choice. They’re designed to work for the customer and may offer better interest rates. But they also have limitations. They’re highly localized, meaning you might have a hard time withdrawing cash if you’re on the road. Plus they might lag behind in online or phone app banking. All of these benefits and drawbacks vary greatly between credit unions, so do your research before you decide which one to go with!

The big advantage (and disadvantage) of banks is that they’re often massive nationwide institutions. That means you’re almost guaranteed to find an ATM or branch no matter where you go. Their for-profit model gives them the resources to develop technology, meaning you can probably manage your bank account on the go via your laptop or phone. Just realize that the bank’s primary goal is to make a profit off of your money, so sometimes customer service isn’t a priority.

There are big differences between banks and credit unions that could save you time, money, or both. Don’t just trust your money to a bank because it’s convenient or to a credit union just because it’s local. Do your research to find the right fit for you!

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November 20, 2019

Which Debt Should You Pay Off First?

Which Debt Should You Pay Off First?

American combined consumer debt now exceeds $13 trillion. That’s a stack of dollar bills nearly 900,000 miles high.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Credit cards: $931 billion
  • Auto loans: $1.22 trillion
  • Student loans: $1.38 trillion
  • Mortgages: $8.88 trillion
  • Any type of debt: $13.15 trillion

Nearly every type of debt can interfere with your financial goals, making you feel like a hamster on a wheel – constantly running but never actually getting anywhere. If you’ve been trying to dig yourself out of a debt hole, it’s time to take a break and look at the bigger picture.

Did you know there are often advantages to paying off certain types of debt before other types? What the simple list above doesn’t include is the average interest rates or any tax benefits to a given type of debt, which can change your priorities. Let’s check them out!

Credit Cards
Credit card interest rates now average over 15%, and interest rates are on the rise. For most households, credit card debt is the place to start – stop spending on credit and start making extra payments whenever possible. Think of it as an investment in your future, one that pays a 15% guaranteed return – the equivalent of a 20% return in the stock market or other taxable investment.

Auto Loans
Interest rates for auto loans are usually much lower than credit card debt, often under 5% on newer loans. Interest rates aren’t the only consideration for auto loans though. New cars depreciate nearly 20% in the first year. In years 2 and 3, you can expect the value to drop another 15% each year. The moral of the story is that cars are a terrible investment but offer great utility. There’s also no tax benefit for auto loan interest. Eliminating debt as fast as possible on a rapidly depreciating asset is a sound decision.

Student Loans
Like auto loans, student loans are usually in the range of 5% to 10% interest. While interest rates are similar to car loans, student loan interest is often tax deductible, which can lower your effective rate. Auto loans can usually be paid off faster than student loan debt, allowing more cash flow to apply to student debt, emergency funds, or other needs.

Mortgage Debt
In most cases, mortgage debt is the last type of debt to pay down. Mortgage rates are usually lower than the interest rates for credit card debt, auto loans, or student loans, and the interest is usually tax deductible. If mortgage debt keeps you awake at night, paying off other types of debt first will give you greater cash flow each month so you can begin paying down your mortgage.

When you’ve paid off your other debt and are ready to start tackling your mortgage, try paying bi-monthly (every two weeks). This simple strategy has the effect of adding one extra mortgage payment each year, reducing a 30-year loan term by several years. Because the payments are spread out instead of making one (large) 13th payment, it’s likely you won’t even notice the extra expense.

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October 23, 2019

Top Reasons Why People Buy Term Life Insurance

Top Reasons Why People Buy Term Life Insurance

These days, most families are two-income households.

That describes 61.9% of U.S. families as of 2017. If that describes your family (and the odds are good), do you have a strategy in place to cover your financial obligations with just one income if you or your spouse were to unexpectedly pass away?

Wow. That’s a real conversation-opener, isn’t it? It’s not easy to think about what might happen if one income suddenly disappeared. (It might seem like more fun to have a root canal than to think about that.) But having the right coverage “just in case” is worth considering. It’ll give you some reassurance and let you get back to the fun stuff… like not thinking about having a root canal.

If you’re interested in finding out more about Term insurance and how it may help with your family’s financial obligations, read on…

Some Basics about Term Insurance
Many of life’s financial commitments have a set end date. Mortgages are 15 to 30 years. Kids grow up and (eventually) start providing for themselves. Term life insurance may be a great option since you can choose a coverage length that lines up with the length of your ongoing financial commitments. Ideally, the term of the policy will end around the same time those large financial obligations are paid off. Term policies also may be a good choice because in many cases, they may be the most economical solution for getting the protection a family needs.

As great as term policies can be, here are a couple of things to keep in mind: a term policy won’t help cover financial commitments if you or your spouse simply lose your job. And term policies have a set (level) premium during the length of the initial period. Generally, term policies can be continued after the term expires, but at a much higher rate.

The following are some situations where a Term policy may help.

Pay Final Expenses
Funeral and burial costs can be upwards of $10,000. However, many families might not have that amount handy in available cash. Covering basic final expenses can be a real burden, especially if the death of a spouse comes out of the blue. If one income is suddenly gone, it could mean the surviving spouse would need to use credit or liquidate assets to cover final expenses. As you would probably agree, neither of these are attractive options. A term life insurance policy can cover final expenses, leaving one less worry for your family.

Pay Off Debt
The average household in the U.S. is carrying nearly $140,000 in debt. For households with a large mortgage balance, the debt figures could be much higher. Couple that with a median household income of under $60,000, and it’s clear that many families would be in trouble if one income is lost.

Term life insurance can be closely matched to the length of your mortgage, which helps to ensure that your family won’t lose their home at an already difficult time.

But what about car payments, credit card balances, and other debt? These other debt obligations that your family is currently meeting with either one or two incomes can be put to bed with a well-planned term life policy.

Income Protection
Even if you’ve planned for final expenses and purchased enough life insurance coverage to pay off your household debt, life can present many other costs of just… living. If you pass unexpectedly, the bills will keep rolling in for anyone you leave behind – especially if you have young children. Those day-to-day living costs and unexpected expenses can seem to multiply in ways that defy mathematical concepts. (You know – like that school field trip to the aquarium that no one mentioned until the night before.)

But Wait, There’s More
A well-planned term life insurance policy can provide other benefits as well, including living benefits that can help prevent medical expenses from wreaking havoc on your family’s financial plan if you become critically ill. One note about the living benefits policies, though: If the critical and chronic illness features are used, the face value of the policy is reduced. But which might be more prepared to take a financial hit: the face value of the life insurance policy that just helped you cover your medical expenses… or your child’s college fund?

In some cases, policies with built in living benefits may cost more than a standard term policy, but it may still cost less than permanent insurance policies! And because a term policy is in force only during the years when your family needs the most protection, premiums can be lower than for other types of life insurance.

Term life insurance can provide income protection to help keep your family’s financial situation solid, and help things stay as “normal” as they can be after a loss.

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October 16, 2019

Tips on Managing Money for Couples

Tips on Managing Money for Couples

Couplehood can be a wonderful blessing, but – as you may know – it can have its challenges as well.

In fact, money matters are the leading cause of stress in modern relationships.¹ The age-old adage that love trumps riches may be true, but if money is tight or if a couple isn’t meeting their financial goals, there could be some unpleasant conversations (er, arguments) on the bumpy road to bliss with your partner or spouse.

These tips may help make the road to happiness a little easier.

1. Set a goal for debt-free living. <br> Certain types of debt can be difficult to avoid, such as mortgages or car payments, but other types of debt, like credit cards in particular, can grow like the proverbial snowball rolling down a hill. Credit card debt often comes about because of overspending or because insufficient savings forced the use of credit for an unexpected situation. Either way, you’ll have to get to the root of the cause or the snowball might get bigger. Starting an emergency fund or reigning in unnecessary spending – or both – can help get credit card balances under control so you can get them paid off.

2. Talk about money matters. <br> Having a conversation with your partner about money is probably not at the top of your list of fun-things-I-look-forward-to. This might cause many couples to put it off until the “right time”. If something is less than ideal in the way your finances are structured, not talking about it won’t make the problem go away. Instead, frustrations over money can fester, possibly turning a small issue into a larger problem. Discussing your thoughts and concerns about money with your partner regularly (and respectfully) is key to reaching an understanding of each other’s goals and priorities, and then melding them together for your goals as a couple.

3. Consider separate accounts with one joint account. <br> As a couple, most of your financial obligations will be faced together, including housing costs, monthly utilities and food expenses, and often auto expenses. In most households, these items ideally should be paid out of a joint account. But let’s face it, it’s no fun to have to ask permission or worry about what your partner thinks every time you buy a specialty coffee or want that new pair of shoes you’ve been eyeing. In addition to your main joint account, having separate accounts for each of you may help you maintain some independence and autonomy in regard to personal spending.

With these tips in mind, here’s to a little less stress so you can put your attention on other “couplehood” concerns… Like where you two are heading for dinner tonight – the usual hangout (which is always good), or that brand new place that just opened downtown? (Hint: This is a little bit of a trick question. The answer is – whichever place fits into the budget that you two have already decided on, together!)

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¹ “Fighting with your spouse? It’s probably about this,” Kelley Holland, CNBC, Feb 4 2015, https://www.cnbc.com/2015/02/04/money-is-the-leading-cause-of-stress-in-relationships.html

² “The Case for (and Against) Spouses Having Joint Checking Accounts,” Maryalene LaPonsie, U.S. News & World Report, Mar 7, 2019, https://money.usnews.com/banking/articles/the-case-for-and-against-spouses-having-joint-checking-accounts

June 24, 2019

The Shelf Life of Financial Records

The Shelf Life of Financial Records

When you finally make the commitment to organize that pile of financial documents, where are you supposed to start?

Maybe you’ve tried sorting your documents into this infamous trio: the Coffee Stains Assortment, the Crumpled-Up Masses, and the Definitely Missing a Page or Two Crew.

How has this system been working for you? Is that same stack of disorganized paper just getting shuffled from one corner of your desk to the top of your filing cabinet and back again? Why not give the following method a try instead? Based on the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA)’s “Save or Shred” ideas, here’s a list of the shelf life of some key financial records to help you begin whittling that stack down to just what you need to keep. (And remember, when disposing of any financial records, shred them – don’t just toss them into the trash.)

1. Keep These Until They Die: Mortgages, Student Loans, Car Loans, Etc.
These records are the ones to hang on to until you’ve completely paid them off. However, keeping these records indefinitely (to be on the safe side) is a good idea. If any questions or disputes relating to the loan or payment of the loan come up, you’re covered. Label the records clearly, then feel free to put them at the back of your file cabinet. They can be out of sight, but make sure they’re still in your possession if that info needs to come to mind.

2. Seven Years in the Cabinet: Tax-Related Records.
These records include your tax returns and receipts/proof of anything you might claim as a deduction. You’ll need to keep your tax documents – including proof of deductions – for 7 years. Period. Why? In the US, if the IRS thinks you may have underreported your gross income by 25%, they have 6 whole years to challenge your return. Not to mention, they have 3 years to audit you if they think there might be any good faith errors on past returns. (Note: Check with your state tax office to learn how long you should keep your state tax records.) Also important to keep in mind: Some of the items included in your tax returns may also pull from other categories in this list, so be sure to examine your records carefully and hang on to anything you think you might need.

3. The Sixers: Property Records.
This one goes out to you homeowners. While you’re living in your home, keep any and all documents from the purchase of the home to remodeling or additions you make. After you sell the home, keep those documents for at least 6 more years.

4. The Annually Tossed: Brokerage Statements, Paycheck Stubs, Bank Records.
“Annually tossed” is used a bit lightly here, so please proceed with caution. What can be disposed of after an annual review are brokerage statements, paycheck stubs (if not enrolled in direct deposit), and bank records. Hoarding these types of documents may lead to a “keep it all” or “trash it all” attitude. Neither is beneficial. What should be kept is anything of long-term importance (see #2).

5. The Easy One: Rental Documents.
If you rent a property, keep all financial documents and rental agreements until you’ve moved out and gotten your security deposit back from the landlord. Use your deposit to buy a shredder and have at it – it’s easy and fun!

6. The Check-‘Em Againsts: Credit Card Receipts/Statements and Bills.
Check your credit card statement against your physical receipts and bank records from that month. Ideally, this should be done online daily, or at least weekly, to catch anything suspicious as quickly as possible. If everything checks out and there are no red flags, shred away! (Note: Planning to claim anything on your statement as a tax deduction? See #2.) As for bills, you’re in the clear to shred them as soon as your payment clears – with one caveat: Bills for any big-ticket items that you might need to make an insurance claim on later (think expensive sound system, diamond bracelet, all-leather sofa with built-in recliners) should be held on to indefinitely (or at least as long as you own the item).

So even if your kids released their inner Michelangelo on the shoebox of financial papers under your bed, some of them need to be kept – for more than just sentimental value. And it’s vital to keep the above information in mind when you’re considering what to keep and for how long.

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June 19, 2019

Making Money Goals That Get You There

Making Money Goals That Get You There

Setting financial goals is like hanging a map on your wall to inspire and motivate you to accomplish your travel bucket list.

Your map might have your future adventures outlined with tacks and twine. It may be patched with pictures snipped from travel magazines. You would know every twist and turn by heart. But to get where you want to go, you still have to make a few real-life moves toward your destination.

Here are 5 tips for making money goals that may help you get closer to your financial goals:

1. Figure out what’s motivating your financial decisions. Deciding on your “why” is a great way to start moving in the right direction. Goals like saving for an early retirement, paying off your house or car, or even taking a second honeymoon in Hawaii may leap to mind. Take some time to evaluate your priorities and how they relate to each other. This may help you focus on your financial destination.

2. Control Your Money. This doesn’t mean you need to get an MBA in finance. Controlling your money may be as simple as dividing your money into designated accounts, and organizing the documents and details related to your money. Account statements, insurance policies, tax returns, wills – important papers like these need to be as well-managed as your incoming paycheck. A large part of working towards your financial destination is knowing where to find a document when you need it.

3. Track Your Money. After your money comes in, where does it go out? Track your spending habits for a month and the answer may surprise you. There are a plethora of apps to link to your bank account to see where things are actually going. Some questions to ask yourself: Are you a stress buyer, usually good with your money until it’s the only thing within your control? Or do you spend, spend, spend as soon as your paycheck hits, then transform into the most frugal individual on the planet… until the next direct deposit? Monitor your spending for a few weeks, and you may find a pattern that will be good to keep in mind (or avoid) as you trek toward your financial destination.

4. Keep an Eye on Your Credit. Building a strong credit report may assist in reaching some of your future financial goals. You can help build your good credit rating by making loan payments on time and reducing debt. If you neglect either of those, you could be denied for mortgages or loans, endure higher interest rates, and potentially difficulty getting approved for things like cell phone contracts or rental agreements which all hold you back from your financial destination. There are multiple programs that can let you know where you stand and help to keep track of your credit score.

5. Know Your Number. This is the ultimate financial destination – the amount of money you are trying to save. Retiring at age 65 is a great goal. But without an actual number to work towards, you might hit 65 and find you need to stay in the workforce to cover bills, mortgage payments, or provide help supporting your family. Paying off your car or your student loans has to happen, but if you’d like to do it on time – or maybe even pay them off sooner – you need to know a specific amount to set aside each month. And that second honeymoon to Hawaii? Even this one needs a number attached to it!

What plans do you already have for your journey to your financial destination? Do you know how much you can set aside for retirement and still have something left over for that Hawaii trip? And do you have any ideas about how to raise that credit score? Looking at where you are and figuring out what you need to do to get where you want to go can be easier with help. Plus, what’s a road trip without a buddy? Call me anytime!

… All right, all right. You can pick the travel tunes first.

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April 15, 2019

Is a home really an investment?

Is a home really an investment?

The housing market has experienced major peaks and valleys over the past 15 years.

If you’re in the market for a new home, you might be wondering if buying a house is a good investment, or if it even should be considered an investment at all…

“Owning a home is the best investment you can make.”
We’ve all heard this common financial refrain: “Owning a home is the best investment you can make.” The problem with that piece of conventional wisdom is that technically a home isn’t an investment at all. An investment is something that (you hope) will earn you money. A house costs money. We may expect to save money over the long term by buying a home rather than renting, but we shouldn’t (typically) expect to earn money from buying a home.

So, a home normally shouldn’t be considered an investment, but it may offer some financial benefits. In other words, buying a home may be a good financial decision, but not a good investment. A home may cost much more than it gives back – especially at the beginning of ownership.

The costs of homeownership
One reason that buying a home may not be a good investment is that the cost of homeownership may be much higher than renting – especially at first. Many first time homebuyers are unprepared for the added expense of owning a home, plus the amount of time maintaining a home may often require. First-time homebuyers must be prepared to potentially deal with:

  • Higher utility costs
  • Lawn care
  • Regular maintenance such as painting or cleaning gutters
  • Emergency home repairs
  • Higher insurance costs
  • Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI) if you don’t provide a full 20 percent down payment

A long term commitment
Another problem with considering a house as an investment is that it may take many years to build equity. Mortgages are typically interest heavy in the beginning. You can expect to be well into the life of your mortgage before you may see any real equity in your home.

Having the choice to move without worrying about selling your home is a benefit of renting that homeowners don’t enjoy. The freedom to move for a career goal, romantic interest, or even just a lifestyle choice is mostly available to a renter but may be out of reach for a homeowner. So, be sure to consider your long term goals and aspirations before you start planning to buy a house.

When is buying a home the right move?
Buying a home in many cases can be an excellent financial decision. If you are committed to living in a specific area but the rent is very high, homeownership may have some benefits. Some of those may be:

  • Not having a landlord make decisions about your property
  • Tax savings
  • Building equity
  • A stable place to raise a family

Buying a home: Not always a good investment, but may be a good financial decision
Although buying a home may not pay you in high returns, it can be an excellent financial decision. If owning a home is one of your dreams, go for it. Just be aware of the costs as well as the benefits. If you’ve always wanted to own your own home, then the rewards can be myriad – dollars can’t measure joy and the priceless memories you’ll create with your family.

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This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to promote any certain products, plans, or strategies for saving and/or investing that may be available to you. Market performance is based on many factors and cannot be predicted. Any examples used in this article are hypothetical. Before investing or enacting a savings or retirement strategy, seek the advice of a licensed financial professional, accountant, realtor, and/or tax expert to discuss your options.

March 25, 2019

Credit unions: What you should know

Credit unions: What you should know

If you’ve always used the services of a traditional bank, you might not know the ins and outs of credit unions and if using one might be better for your financial situation.

Credit unions are generally known for their customer-focused operations and friendliness. But the main difference between a bank and a credit union is that a credit union is a nonprofit organization that you have to be a member of to participate in its services. Credit unions may offer higher interest rates and lower fees than banks, but banks may provide more services and a greater range of products.[i]

Read on for some basics about what you should know before you join one.

Protection and insurance
Just like banks, your accounts at a credit union should be insured. The National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund (NCUSIF) functions to protect consumer deposits if the credit union becomes insolvent. The fund protects up to $250,000 per customer in deposits.[ii] Be sure the credit union you select is backed by the NCUSIF.

What credit union is best for you?
Today there are many credit unions available. Many now offer 100 percent online banking so you may never need to visit a branch at all.

The most important feature in selecting a credit union is to make sure they meet your personal banking needs and criteria. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Does the credit union offer the products and services you want? Can you live without the ones they don’t?
  • Do they have competitive interest rates when compared to banks?
  • Are the digital and online banking features useful?
  • What are the fee schedules?
  • What are the credit union membership requirements? Do you qualify for membership?

Take your time and do some research. Credit unions vary in the services provided as well as the fees for such services.

What to expect when opening a credit union account
Each credit union may have slightly different requirements when opening an account, but in general, you will most likely need a few things:

Expect to complete an application and sign documents. When opening a credit union account, you will likely have to fill out some forms and sign other paperwork. If you don’t understand something you are asked to sign, make sure you get clarification. Be prepared to show identification. You will likely be asked to show at least two forms of identification when opening an account. Your credit union will also probably ask for your social security number, date of birth, and physical address. Be prepared to show proof of your personal information.

Make the required opening deposit. On the day you open your credit union account, you’ll likely be asked to make an opening deposit. Each credit union may have a different minimum deposit required to open the account. It could be up to $100 (or more), but call the credit union to make sure.

Unique benefits
Credit union accounts offer some unique advantages for members. You may enjoy more comfortable access to personal loans or even auto financing and mortgages. Credit unions may offer other perks such as fee waivers, as well as discounts on other products and services that come from being a member.

If participating in a customer-owned bank sounds interesting to you, a credit union may be a good option. There are more credit unions available today than ever. Do your research. You may find an option that compares to your current bank, but offers some greater benefits that will make it worth the switch.

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This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to promote any certain products, plans, or strategies for saving and/or investing that may be available to you. Any examples used in this article are hypothetical. Before investing or enacting a savings or retirement strategy, seek the advice of a licensed financial professional, accountant, and/or tax expert to discuss your options.

[i] https://www.creditkarma.com/advice/i/difference-between-credit-union-and-bank/\ [ii] https://www.ncua.gov/support-services/share-insurance-fund

January 28, 2019

Your credit score – 4 things you need to know

Your credit score – 4 things you need to know

You’re probably aware that your credit score is usually accessed when you apply for new credit, such as a credit card or an auto loan.

But you may not know it might also be requested by landlords, employers, and even romantic partners.[i]

So what are your credit score and report, what are the factors that determine them, and why do so many diverse parties request to see them?

What is a credit score and what is a credit report? Your credit score is simply a number that encapsulates your ability to repay debt. It isn’t the only way interested parties can assess your creditworthiness, but it’s certainly often used as a preliminary factor. Having a higher score may lead to lower interest rates, more successful credit applications, and possibly more trust in general.

Your credit report is much more comprehensive and shows your outstanding debts, how well you pay them, the age of the accounts, and so forth. A single bad account on your credit report might damage your score, but your counterparty may be willing to work with you if you can show a strong history with your other accounts – and can justify the problem account.

What constitutes your credit score? Credit reports are maintained by the three main credit reporting agencies: TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian. A credit score is generated by FICO, VantageScore, and some financial institutions may have their own proprietary algorithms to determine their own scores.

In general, scores are determined by the variously-weighted categories of payment history, the amount owed (credit utilization), the age of the accounts, how much new credit you’ve requested recently, and the types of accounts (revolving, mortgage, student loans, etc.).[ii] Of course proprietary scores may take many other factors into consideration.

Who wants to see your credit score? Lenders may screen you based on your credit score, then use other factors to determine if they’ll give you a loan. Instant-approval lenders, like credit card companies, may just use your credit score to determine your creditworthiness. For large, long-term loans, like mortgages, you can expect to have to turn over your credit report as well.

Landlords may ask for a report, but might also request your credit score as well. They have the obvious financial interest in relying on you to pay your rent from month to month, but they also may have in mind that if you’re responsible with your money, perhaps you’ll also be responsible to take care of your rented living quarters.

Employers may ask to see your credit report. They may make hiring decisions based on the report, but some states have disallowed the practice.[iii] The chance that financial hardship may prompt employee theft is one reason they may ask, as well as wanting to see your consistency in paying debts over time, which may correlate with your punctuality and persistence at work.

How to improve your score Those with poor credit may want to improve their credit history, which may in turn improve their credit scores. Payment history makes up 35% of the FICO scoring factors, and this will take time to improve. However, 30% of the score is determined by how much you owe, which can quickly be improved by paying down your debt. The 15% determinant that is credit age can, of course, only improve with time, but the 10% of your score attributed to new requests and 10% to types of credit can be managed in a short timeframe, too; try to avoid applying for a lot of new credit and, when you do, try to get different types of credit.[iv]

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October 1, 2018

Consumer Debt: How it helps and how it hurts

Consumer Debt: How it helps and how it hurts

What exactly is consumer debt? It’s “We the People” debt, as opposed to government or business debt.

Consumer debt is our debt. And we, the people, have a lot of it – it’s record-breaking in fact. In May of 2018, U.S. consumer debt was projected to exceed $4 trillion by the end of 2018[i].

That’s a lot of zeros. So, in case you’re wondering, what makes up consumer debt?

Consumer debt consists of credit card debt and non-revolving loans – like automobile financing or a student loan. (Mortgages aren’t considered consumer debt – they’re classified under real estate investments.)

So, how did we get buried under all this debt?
There are a few reasons consumer debt is so high – some of them not entirely in our control. The rise of student loan debt: Most consumer debt consists of school loans. During the recession, many Americans returned to school to re-train or to pursue graduate degrees to increase their competitiveness in a tough job market.

Bankruptcy: Changing bankruptcy laws under the Credit Card Protection Act of 2005 made it harder for Americans to file for bankruptcy. This led to consumer credit card debt climbing to a record high of $1.028 trillion in 2008[ii].

Good auto loan rates: The number of auto loans has skyrocketed due to attractive interest rates. After the recession, the federal government lowered interest rates to spur spending and help lift the country out of the recession. Americans responded by financing more automobiles, which added to the consumer debt total.

Is all this consumer debt a bad thing?
Not all consumer debt is bad debt. And there are ways that it helps the economy – both personal and shared. A student loan for example – particularly a government-backed student loan – can offer a borrower a low-interest rate, deferred repayment, and of course, the benefit of gaining a higher education which may bring a higher salary. A college graduate earns 56 percent more than a high school graduate over their lifetime, according to the Economic Policy Institute. So, getting a student loan may make good economic sense.

Credit card debt that won’t go away
Credit card debt is a different story. According to the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC), 61 percent of U.S. adults have had credit card debt in the past 12 months. Nearly two in five carry debt from month-to-month.

Still, the amount of credit card debt Americans carry has been on the decline, with the average carried per adult a little more than $3,000.

Credit card debt won’t hurt you with interest charges if you pay off the balance monthly. Some households prefer to conduct their spending this way to take advantage of cashback purchases or airline points. As always, make sure spending with credit works within your budget.

If you’re carrying a balance from month to month on your credit cards, however, there is going to be a negative impact in the form of interest payments. Avoid doing this whenever possible.

Stay on the good side of consumer debt
Consumer debt is a mixed bag. Staying on the good side of consumer debt may pay off for you in the long run if you’re conscientious about borrowing money, plan your budget carefully, and always seek to live within your means.

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