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We Do the Math: Save for Retirement or Pay Off Credit Card Debt?

Should you save for retirement or pay off credit card debt? If you’re carrying a card balance, you may be wrestling with whether to put all your resources into attacking the debt, or start building your retirement nest egg while you slowly pay off debt.

Which one will give you a better net worth? There’s no simple answer. For some people the situation may warrant clearing credit card debt first; for others, it’s better to start investing right away. To figure out which scenario is better in a given situation, we’ll need to do some math. Don’t worry, we’ll show you how to do it in a few easy steps.

Step 1: Gather important numbers about your debt and your retirement plan

First, look through your credit card statements and accompanying information to pull up the following numbers:

  • Credit card debt. You’ll find this on the front of your credit card statement.
  • Credit card interest rate, or APR (Annual Percentage Rate). You’ll find this further down on your statement, in a section labeled “Interest Charged” or something similar.
  • Minimum payment. You’ll find this in your card’s terms and conditions, under a discussion about how minimum payments are calculated. It will probably be a percentage, but there may also be a flat sum.

Next, consider any retirement plan you are enrolled in or have available. What is the average annual return? You can identify past returns by reviewing your retirement account statements. For example, your 401(k) plan account may list your annual return. Note that past returns don’t guarantee or predict future returns, but we’ll use the average annual return as a proxy for future returns in this case, knowing that if our portfolio takes a long-term downward turn, our calculations will change.

Finally, how much extra do you have in your monthly budget that you could put toward credit card payments, retirement investments, or both?

Follow along as we consider a hypothetical debt situation and retirement opportunity. Let’s say there’s $500 in our monthly budget, which equals $6,000 annually ($500 x 12 months = $6,000) to put toward debt or retirement.

Currently, the balance on our credit card is $5,000. Our APR is 22%. Our minimum monthly payment is 3% of our outstanding balance or $25, whichever is greater.

Our employer offers a 401(k) plan. For the sake of keeping this illustration simple, we’ll say our employer doesn’t match employee contributions and we choose to make taxable contributions with a Roth designated account within the 401(k).

In reality, you might choose instead to make tax-deductible contributions to a traditional retirement account. With a Roth 401(k) there are no immediate tax benefits, which makes our calculations simpler and therefore better suited for this purpose.

We’ll say the default investment in our 401(k) is a target-date mutual fund with an average annual return of 6.3% since its inception. We know that future performance is unpredictable. But to run the numbers for the retirement vs. debt decision, we’ll apply an annual return of 6% to our retirement account.

We’ll look at the retirement account and credit card balance after five years to compare the two choices: 1) making minimum payments on our card balance so we can start investing right away, or 2) putting all our extra money toward our credit card debt before we consider retirement investing.

In both scenarios, we’ll assume that we won’t make additional charges on our credit card. In addition, we’ll contribute to our retirement account when we have money available to invest.

Step 2: Calculate net worth if you prioritize retirement savings over paying off credit card debt quickly

In this scenario, we’ll see what happens if we only make minimum payments on our credit card so that we can get started investing for retirement right away. Your credit card statement should state very clearly how long it will take to pay off your balance if you make minimum payments.

You can also find an online calculator to help you with these calculations. Here’s the information we’ll enter for our example (you can put in your own numbers from your real-life situation):

  • Current credit card balance: $5,000
  • Annual percentage rate: 22%
  • Proposed additional monthly payment: $0

Who Pays When Loved Ones Leave Debt Behind?

Losing a loved one — a parent, spouse, or sibling — is difficult enough. But what if your loved one left mortgage, auto loan, or credit card debt behind? Will you now be responsible for paying those bills?

In most cases, no. Creditors can’t force you to cover the unpaid debts of loved ones who have died. But the money that your loved ones owed might cut into or even eliminate any inheritance that was meant for you or other survivors.

What usually happens

When people die, the money they owe creditors — everyone from their mortgage lender, to their auto loan providers, to their credit card companies — is collected from their estate. The estate in this case is defined as the money and assets owned solely by the deceased.

This might mean that the house your parents owned has to be sold to pay off any mortgage debt they owed. Their car might have to be sold to pay off credit card or other debts.

Whatever is left after these debts are paid off remains in the estate of the deceased. If your parents wanted to leave money behind for their children and grandchildren, the amount they wanted to bestow will be reduced by however much they owed creditors at the time of their death.

It can get more complicated

Of course, that’s the most basic course of action. In reality, money matters can get more complicated after the death of a loved one.

This is especially true when you lose a spouse. In most states, you won’t be responsible for any debt that your spouse left behind when he or she died, as long as the debt was accrued in your spouse’s name alone. If both you and your spouse share a credit card or a mortgage, then you will be responsible for making payments on that debt after your spouse dies.

If you live in what is known…

Are We Headed Toward a Bull or Bear Market?

The stock market has been on a roll over the last year. Since the winter of 2016, investors have enjoyed a delightful bull market that has seen the S&P 500 index rise by more than 25 percent.

Whenever there is a lengthy run-up like this, investors always want to know how long it can last. Are we due for a big correction or even a record-breaking crash? Or will we see the markets continue to rise?

Trying to time the market’s movement is a fool’s game, but it’s always smart to look at the various indicators that may foreshadow future performance. With the current market, there is evidence to back up both bullish and bearish predictions.

Indicators of a bull market

The good times won’t end anytime soon.

Most economic indicators are strong

For the most part, the American economy is stable. Unemployment is at its lowest point in a decade. Inflation is not out of hand. Manufacturing output is up, along with consumer confidence. There are some concerns about overall growth and productivity, but nothing that spells immediate doom for American investors at this point. Generally speaking, if the underlying foundations of the economy are sound, a sudden drop in stock prices is unlikely.

Interest rates are still historically low

We’ve seen interest rates creep up a bit, but they are still very low by historical standards. If you’re placing money in a bank account, don’t expect to receive much in the way of income. Bond yields are also very low. Thus, there’s a good chance we’ll see people continue to invest in stocks, as they have recently offered much better returns than most other options. As long as interest rates remain low, demand for stocks will be high.

Technical analysis supports it

Many analysts and financial planners prefer to examine a technical analysis of the stock market’s performance, which looks at long-term trends that have historically repeated themselves. Most observers of these trends believe we are halfway through a growth cycle that began around 2010 and will continue another five to 10 years.

Corporate earnings are…

How to Get Out of Debt

On the way home from work the other night, I heard a radio commercial touting a debt reduction system that (supposedly) works like no other. As I drove along, I couldn’t help but chuckle. After all, they made it sound like there’s some sort of silver bullet out there that will magically make your debt disappear — for a fee, of course.

Guess what? There isn’t. That’s the bad news. The good news is that, with a bit of hard work and focus, you can do it on your own. What follows are some tips for making it happen.

get-out-of-debt

Recognize the problem

It may sound trite, but the first step in tackling your debt is to admit that you have a problem. Unless you’re willing to own up to your situation and commit to changing it, you’re going to be in debt for a long, long time. If you’re married, now’s the time to sit down and have a heartfelt talk about money.

Stop taking on new debt

This is a hard one, especially if you’ve become reliant on credit cards for making ends meet. If you want to climb out of the hole, you have to stop digging. If you don’t have the money to pay for something, don’t buy it. Period. If you have to cut up your credit cards in order to make this happen, DO IT.

Here, it’s important to understand why you are going into more debt. For some, it’s the unexpected emergency (see building up a cushion below). For others, it’s just steady overspending. One solution is to create and follow the dreaded budget.

It’s really not that bad, and there are several different ways to budget. Pick one that works for you. It may take some trial and error, but stay the course and you’ll…

How Automation has Helped Me Reduce Debt and Save

Readers often e-mail me for tips on how to keep their finances manageable. There are so many options out there that it can be overwhelming. I was speaking with my mom about this some time ago, and she felt the same way.

My mom has been responsible with her money over the years, but she felt that she could be doing better. After chatting with her, we decided that she should switch banks and automate some of her bills. It would free up some of her time and take a few things off of the to-do list… wins all around. I was talking with her the other week, after she had implemented the new system, and she said she’s really happy with her decision. She has saved both time and money with her new bank and online bill pay.

Why do I love automating my finances? Well, why wouldn’t I? Automating your finances can be a wonderful process, if done correctly. For one thing, it puts me in control of my bills without having to deal with paper, stamps, envelopes, and checks. But there are plenty of other reasons to love automating my finances, too. Here are my favorites.

I don’t pay late fees

I used to occasionally lose bills or forgot to send checks whenever I had a very busy week. Late fees definitely add up, and can be as high as $29 to $39 for credit cards! Sometimes I can pay my credit card accounts online for a same-day payment, but if I’m a day late, I may still get a fee imposed.

With online bill pay, you don’t have to worry about late fees because your bills will get paid on time every month, without any added work on your end. We’ll talk more below about different options for setting up automatic bill pay. But for now, just know that in exchange for a little effort up front, you can reap the benefits of avoiding late payments… forever.

Late payments don’t hurt my credit score

Getting rid of late payments isn’t just good for saving money by avoiding late fees. It also helps keep my credit score high. Payment history makes up the lion’s share of most credit scoring algorithms, and even a single late payment can quickly tank an otherwise excellent credit score.

Again, there are several options available for automating payments. But any of these options can keep you from having late payments recorded on your credit file, which helps you build your credit score or keep it high.

Resource: How to Check Your Credit for Free (and Avoid the Scams Out There)

I’m saving money, and I barely notice

In the past, I would save money for a few weeks and then have an emergency. After getting through the trouble, I’d neglect to re-start my savings. This cycle would repeat over and over. I felt like I couldn’t possibly save more money without cutting my budget to the bone.

How did I fix this issue? Automation, of course!

Now, I have a portion of my pay automatically transferred to a high-yield savings account each time my check hits my account. The trick to making this work is to make sure the transfer happens before you can even check your account balance on payday. It’s hard to miss money that you never had a chance to see!

But don’t be a hero. Start out with just a small…

6 Money Moves to Make If Your Net Worth Is Negative

One of the most illustrative financial figures to know is your total net worth. This is the value of all of your cash and assets, minus your debts. For many people, that figure is below zero.

Building a high net worth should be the ultimate goal of anyone seeking financial freedom. If your net worth is less than zero, consider making these moves ASAP. (See also: 10 Ways to Increase Your Net Worth This Year)

1. Reduce your spending

One of the most direct ways to end up with a negative net worth is to spend more than you earn. Cutting unnecessary expenditures is the first step in having a net positive income each month. This can mean some tough choices, like eliminating cable, eating out, and your annual vacation. It may also require more extreme measures, like getting by without a car.

You can help yourself by tracking your spending meticulously in a budget so you know where money is going each month. Even if you think you are already living frugally, there’s a chance you can find savings just by taking a closer look.

2. Pay off your high-interest debt

If your net worth is negative, it may be partially due to high interest credit card debt and other loans. Interest can quickly pile up and eventually overwhelm your earnings, putting you in negative net worth territory. Tackling debt starting with the highest interest rate first is called the avalanche method, and this can save you a lot of money on interest payments in the long run. Sometimes, even paying off just one credit card can make a huge difference in your financial situation. (See also: The Fastest Way to Pay Off $10,000 in Credit Card Debt)

3. Bring in more…

How to Remove a Cosigner from a Student Loan

Adding a cosigner to a student loan has become common practice. After all, very few students can qualify for a loan based on their own income and credit profile. A cosigner is usually needed in order to get the loan approved, particularly with private student loans.

But given that student loan repayments can run as long as 25 years, does it make sense to keep your cosigner on the loan for the entire duration of the term? There are risks to your cosigner, and that’s why you should want to remove them from your student loan as soon as possible.

Why You Should Remove Your Cosigner

Cosigning a loan isn’t something that’s part of a casual arrangement. There are implications for the cosigner, which could affect his or her credit standing. It could even impair their overall financial situation. If the cosigners are your parents – which is usually the case – the best strategy is to have them removed from the loan as soon as you can.

For example, your payment history on the loan will affect your cosigner’s credit. If you make any late payments, they will show up as derogatory entries on your cosigner’s credit report, in addition to yours. Naturally, should you default on the loan, your cosigner will be called upon to satisfy the obligation. That can cause serious distress to your cosigner, particularly since student loan amounts are typically large.

Read More: How to Refinance Your Student Loans

There’s one other factor that’s seldom considered in regard to cosigner arrangements. When your cosigner goes to apply for a loan for themselves, the cosigned student loan will likely show up on their credit report. Most lenders will consider this a full obligation of your cosigner. That being the case, it’s possible that your cosigner will be declined for their own loan application, even if you have assumed full responsibility for your student loan’s repayment. When adding the student loan payment to their other obligations, the new lender may decide that their total debt ratio is too high to justify approval.

When you remove a cosigner from a student loan, you not only protect their credit, but you also free them up to borrow for their own purposes in the future. For that reason, you should actively pursue a cosigner release as soon as you are eligible.

Federal Student Loans

Most federal student loans will enable you to qualify even without a cosigner. Federal student loan programs recognize that you are in fact a student, and lack the income and credit profile typically required to support the loan. Repayment is based on your securing employment after graduation.

However, there is one federal student loan type, a Direct…

Extra Cash? How to Decide Whether to Pay Off Debt or Invest

If you have extra cash or come into a sudden windfall, is it smarter to pay off your debts or invest the money?

A woman came in to my office the other day wondering this exact thing. Well, she didn’t ask the actual question… I did.

She had a mound of credit card debt, clicking away at 12% interest. What surprised me, though, was that she already had the $50,000 needed to clear out the credit card debt. Interestingly enough, she didn’t plan on using any of it to pay off the card! She wanted to invest the money instead. She estimated that she could earn much more than the 12% she was paying on the credit card, so she concluded that paying it off was a silly thing to do. Her money was best served elsewhere.

It turns out that this woman was in debt all over town, even though she had substantial assets. Never mind that her credit score was in the dumpster, she wanted to invest. I had to convince her to reconsider.

Could She Have Been Right?

To you and me, the answer in the above woman’s case might be a no-brainer. But other situations aren’t so clear cut. In order to really address this issue, you have to understand all the components of the question.

First, there is the basic financial question, which is rather simple. Ask yourself which number is greater, the return on your investment or the interest you are paying. If you are paying more interest than you could earn, you are far better off by paying down the debt.

For example: assume you owe $10,000 on a credit card. Let’s say that you actually have the $10,000 in the bank, which you could use today to get out of debt completely. The credit card interest rate is 10% and the bank is paying you 1%. At first, this seems like a slam dunk. Pay off the credit card. Right? Not so fast…

Assume that you also have an opportunity to invest $10,000 in your brother’s “can’t lose” vending machine business. He tells you that investments are earning 30%, which is quite a bit more than the 10% you’d save paying off the credit card. Now, the choice becomes more complicated.

If you pay off the credit card, you are making a guaranteed 10% return. Why? Because that’s money that you’ll keep in your pocket rather than sending it off to Visa or Mastercard.

If you invest in the vending machine business, you are guaranteed nothing. You might earn 30%… or even more! But you could also lose everything. It’s happened once or twice in the past when people invest in small businesses.

So, which is greater? A guaranteed…

3 Ways Student Loan Debt Can Affect Your Mortgage Application

You’re ready to buy a home, but you’re also paying back federal or private student loans. Will this make it more difficult to qualify for a mortgage?

Yes. But that doesn’t mean qualifying for a mortgage while paying off student loans is impossible. Here’s what you need to understand before starting the home buying process.

Debt-to-income ratio

When determining whether to approve you for a mortgage, lenders look at something called your debt-to-income ratio. This ratio shows how much of your gross monthly income — your income before taxes are taken out — your monthly debts eat up. If your debt-to-income ratio is too high, lenders won’t approve you for a mortgage because they worry that you won’t have enough money each month to handle this significant payment.

It’s important to remember that mortgage lenders aren’t as concerned about your total student loan debt as they are about the size of your monthly student loan payments. Lenders typically want all of your monthly debts, including your new mortgage payment, to equal no more than 43 percent of your gross monthly income. So, if your total debts — again, including that new mortgage payment — are at or under that percentage, your odds of qualifying for a mortgage loan are higher.

Your student loan payments are considered part of your monthly debt by lenders. For example, if you are paying $300 a month on your student loans, your lender will count that amount when calculating your debt-to-income ratio. If that $300 payment pushes your debt-to-income ratio past 43 percent, you might not be able to qualify for a mortgage.

A deferment won’t help

Your student loan might be in deferment while you are applying for a mortgage, meaning you won’t have to start making payments on it for six to 12 months. You might think this will help your debt-to-income ratio. After all, when you’re applying for your mortgage, you aren’t making those student loan payments.

But this isn’t the case. Lenders will still count your student loan debt against you. That’s because lenders know that long before you pay off your mortgage, you’ll have to eventually start making those monthly student loan payments. Lenders don’t want your mortgage payment…

5 Myths About Credit Cards That Won’t Go Away

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The idea of evaluating a person’s creditworthiness goes back as early as 1899, when Equifax (originally called Retail Credit Company) would keep a list of consumers and a series of factors to determine their likelihood to pay back debts. However, credit cards didn’t make an appearance until the 1950s, and the FICO score as we know it today wasn’t introduced until 1989.

Due to these timing differences, many U.S. consumers hold on to damaging myths about credit cards. Let’s dispel five of these widely held but false beliefs and find out what to do to continue improving your credit score.

Myth #1: Closing unused cards is good for credit

Remember when United Colors of Benetton used to be all the rage and you shopped there all the time? Fast forward a decade; you don’t shop there anymore, and you’re thinking about shutting down that store credit card. Not so fast! Closing that old credit card may do more harm than good to your credit score.

Your length of credit history contributes 15 percent of your FICO score. If that credit card is your oldest card, then closing it would bring down the average age of your accounts and hurt your score. This is particularly true when there is a gap of several years between your oldest and second-to-oldest card. Another point to consider is that when you close a credit card, you’re reducing your amount of available credit. This drops your credit utilization ratio, which makes up 30 percent of your FICO score.

What to do: Keep those old credit cards open, especially when they are the oldest ones that you have. Just make sure that you’re keeping on top of any applicable annual fees and they’re not tempting you to spend beyond your means.

Myth #2: Holding a credit card balance is good for credit

Your payment history is a more influential factor to your FICO score than your total amount owed to lenders (35 percent versus 30 percent, respectively). This means that if you have a choice between paying off and holding on to debt, it’s generally better to pay it off. However, responsible…