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How to Stick to Your Financial New Year's Resolutions

1/22/2020 in Money Management Tips
As we enter 2020, this New Year in particular is proving to be a popular time to set resolutions and goals for self-improvement. Due to it being the beginning of a new decade, more people are deciding to put their shoulder to the wheel and achieve their biggest dreams and aspirations for the next ten years. Stay on track with your resolutions by following some basic guidelines.

According to research, one of the most popular resolutions is improving one’s finances, with over half of those studied having some financial goals on their list. Unfortunately, resolutions are often very ambitious and fall apart soon after they’re made—56% of those surveyed stated that they were never able to follow through.

But is this really due to the failure of people’s ambition? One could argue that the real reason resolutions don’t succeed is because we’ve never truly learned the proper way to go about a resolution. So if you’ve set a financial goal for the next year, or even decade, and are worried about losing track of it, here are some tips on how to best stick to it!

Say No to Vague Goals
The best personal finance goals are the ones that are clearly defined because they’re the hardest to stray from. They also require more thought and planning than a vague goal. For example, if a person decides their financial plan for the new year is to “save more money,” they may have no path laid out on how to complete this. In addition to that, they could have no way of gauging when they’ve achieved success, which can make it easy to give up.

Instead, choose goals that have clearly defined ways to be completed. Instead of saying you want to save more, go into your savings account and see how much you saved on average last year. Do this by taking the amount of money you put into your savings account and divide that by 12, so that you know how much money you saved every month. Now make it your goal to save 25% more than that last year, or maybe even 50% more. This could mean going from putting $100 into savings every month, to $125-$150. Now you know what your goal is, can reasonably measure it, and have a set strategy in place for how to achieve it.

Here is a list of actionable goals you can set, compared to more common, vague, financial goals:
Vague GoalsActionable Goals
Improve your credit score.Bring my credit score up by 50-100 points by making monthly payments on time and keeping my card balance below 30%.
Save for retirement.Start contributing 5% of my income to a 401k or Roth IRA every month and meet with my employer to find the best options.
Make more money.Earn $1000-$2000 more this year by investing in dividend-yielding stocks, creating a side hustle, or working towards a promotion.


Automate What You Can
One of the other issues with resolutions is how easy it is to simply forget or get distracted from your original plan. The daily bustle of life can be incredibly hard to navigate, and adding a new routine to this certainly doesn’t ease the struggle. In order to get around this, use the latest technology to automate your financial strategy.

New fintech apps and software are being developed constantly that help users manage their finances, and it’s important to make the most of this if you really want to have the best chance of achieving success. The benefits of these platforms are that most of them allow for some form of automation, meaning they’ll be doing the work for you, or making the work easier to complete from your smartphone or laptop.

To get started, sign up for a ClearCheckbook account if you haven't already done so. Our tools and features help you manage all areas of your finances from reporting to budgeting and account balancing. You can also look into online bank accounts with helpful features such as automatic savings, so that every time you make a purchase or receive a paycheck, a small amount of money goes into your savings account without requiring any extra work.

Find Support
For those who complete their New Year’s Resolutions, many find that one of the things that drives the most success is having a third party to push them to complete their goals. For those trying to get in shape, this could mean involving a friend in their fitness journey or meeting with a personal trainer every few weeks to monitor their progress and give them advice.

The same principle holds especially true with one’s finances. Most people get emotional when they manage their money, and this can lead to hasty decisions being made that end up hurting them in the long run. Some examples may include not budgeting properly, making investments that are too risky, or overestimating what you can realistically achieve in a year. Consider talking with a financially savvy friend to discuss your strategy and get a second opinion on your plan. If you’re able to spend the extra money, meeting with a certified financial planner could be a great way to really see your money grow, and have the support to continue sticking to your financial goals.

Don’t Get Discouraged
While all of these strategies play an important role in helping complete New Year's Resolutions, it’s important to also remember that no one is perfect, and everyone is going to have slip-ups along the way. This is also where most resolutions fall apart because they can lead to a negative mindset. When someone overspends one day, their logic might be “I’ve already overspent today, so what does it hurt if I miss my goal tomorrow?” This leads to a negativity cycle which eventually causes the entire resolution to fall apart.

Instead, create a mindset where each failure becomes a learning opportunity. If one month you missed a credit card payment and are worried about a negative impact on your credit score, plan to spend less the next month so you can make more than the minimum payment going forward. By doing this, you’ve created a better opportunity for yourself by accepting a small failure.

Optimize your tax refund by paying off a debt, putting it toward a rainy day fund or investing it!

4/24/2018 in Money Management Tips
Now that your taxes are all filed and sent in, many of you will be receiving a tax refund. Rather than spending that money on something frivolous or unnecessary, you should think about setting up or adding the money to your rainy day fund or by investing it.

Check out our Preparing for the Unexpected with Emergency and Rainy Day Funds blog post for more information about a rainy day / emergency fund and how to set it up. The main purpose of this fund is to have some extra money to help you get through a tough time such as if you encounter an unexpected large bill (a major car repair, broken appliance, lost job, etc).

If you're already on top of your rainy day / emergency fund, you can always invest part, or all, of your tax refund. It's not too early to get on top of your 2018 Roth IRA contribution. We have a comprehensive blog post that covers many investment possibilities based on risk and return. You can check that post out here: 8 Ways to Invest Your Money and Earn More Interest.

Another great way to put your tax refund to good use is to put it toward paying off or reducing a debt. Even if you can only spare a small portion of the refund, paying any additional money towards the principal of a loan will help you save a lot of money in the long run, especially for new debt where your monthly payments are mostly paying interest and not the principal of the loan.

Check for expired reminders and bills so you don't miss a payment or reminder

1/5/2018 in Money Management Tips
Happy New Year! With 2018 here, it might be time to do a few housekeeping tasks to help make sure you don't miss any reminders or bill payments. We recommend checking out the Reminders and Recurring Transactions tool and the Bill Tracker for any expired items. A lot of times we'll add reminders or bills that are set to expire around the end /beginning of the year and then forget to update them with new amounts or payees or whatever it might be.

To check for any expired reminders, click on Tools at the top of the page and then click on Reminders / Recurring Transactions. There will be a red alert at the top of your upcoming reminders list if any reminders have recently expired. You can go and edit the start/end dates and other reminder information as necessary to make sure you continue to get reminded.

For the bill tracker, click on Tools at the top of the page and then click on Bill Tracker. A similar alert will appear at the top of the page if you have any bills that have expired recently.

We'd also recommend taking a few minutes to review your budgets and make sure you don't need to adjust them based on your spending from last year.

Refinancing Your Auto, Student or Home Loans Can Help Save You Money

8/1/2017 in Money Management Tips

Refinancing your loans can be a way to help reduce your monthly payments and help minimize the amount of interest you’ll pay over the life of the loan.

Whether you’re looking to refinance automotive, home or student loans, they each come with pros and cons. This ClearCheckbook Money Management Tips post will help you figure out if refinancing is right for you. Keep in mind that refinancing at the beginning of your loan while you’re still paying heavily toward interest is the best time to refinance. The closer you get to paying off your loan, the less a refinance might help.

The three most common types of loans you might have are automotive, student and home. Each of these loans has different requirements and fees associated with refinancing. We’ll cover each of these loan types and go into whether refinancing the loan might be right for you.

Why you might consider refinancing:
It might be wise to research refinancing your loans if you’ve match any of these criteria:

1. Your credit score has improved since taking the loan.
The interest rate you get on your loans usually has a very strong correlation to your credit score. If you took out a loan while your credit score was low (699 or below) but your credit score has raised up into the 700’s or higher, your chance of getting a lower interest rate is a lot higher than if your credit score was still low.

2. Interest rates have dropped since you took out the loan.
Interest rates have been at historic lows recently, but they fluctuate all the time. Assuming your credit score remained the same, refinancing when interest rates drop 1% or more from what you’re currently paying could mean a big reduction in monthly bills and interest over the term of the loan.

3. You didn’t get a good interest rate, even though you had good credit.
Just because you had good credit doesn’t mean you got the best rate when you took out your loan. Whatever the circumstances were, if you ended up with a higher rate than you think you can get now, refinancing at a lower rate could be a good choice.

4. Your financial situation has changed and you need to lower your monthly payment.
If you’ve run into some hard times financially and need access to as much cash as possible, then refinancing could potentially help get you some extra money each month.

5. You want to change your loan duration (eg: going from a 30 year fixed to a 15 year fixed mortgage).
Refinancing with a shorter term loan can help save you lots of money in interest over the term of the loan. If you’re financially stable enough and would like to pay off your home quicker, refinancing to a shorter loan term could be a good choice.

6. You’re currently facing hard times and need to reduce your monthly payments
Refinancing a loan doesn’t have to be entirely about saving money in the long term. Refinancing can also be a great option if you’re going through tough times financially and need to lower your monthly payments. This can usually be done by refinancing your loans for a longer duration. The downside is you’ll probably end up paying more over the course of the loan, but it can help alleviate any immediate financial issues. Then, when you get yourself back on solid ground you can work on refinancing again or paying off the loans faster.

How does refinancing a loan work?
No matter what kind of loan you have, refinancing works by taking out a new loan to pay off your old one. This new loan comes with a new interest rate and terms. You can refinance through your existing loan holder or with a different company. When refinancing, it’s always good to shop around and try to find a lender with the best rates and terms that fit your needs.

Automotive Loan Refinancing
Compared with other types of loans, refinancing an auto loan is about as easy as it gets. There is no appraisal and usually no fees associated with refinancing your auto loan. Credit unions usually offer some of the best interest rates when it comes to refinancing auto loans. The credit unions might require you to create a checking or savings account with them if you don’t already have one.

Assuming you meet one or more of the criteria above in the "Why you might consider refinancing" section, one of the first things you’ll want to do is get the current payoff amount from your existing lender. This is the amount left on your current loan and is the amount you’ll use when refinancing. If the payoff amount is higher than the value of your car then you might have trouble getting a new lender to refinance your loan.

You can find out how much you can potentially save by using a calculator like Bankrate’s auto loan calculator to determine what your new monthly payment might be and then subtract that amount from what you’re currently paying each month.

Like we mentioned earlier, refinancing in the first half of your loan’s term is going to save you the most monty since during that time you’re mostly paying interest. After that you’ll be paying more toward principal and refinancing will have less of a benefit.

If you need to lower your monthly payment but your payoff amount is worth more than the value of your car or you can’t find a lender to give you a new loan at a lower interest rate, you can try negotiating with your current lender to lower the rate or to extend the term of the loan. Extending the duration of your loan means you’ll be paying more in interest over time but it could lower your monthly payments.

Student Loan Consolidation / Refinancing
Before we get into the details a little more, let’s clear up what the difference between consolidation and refinancing is. Student loan consolidation is combining multiple student loans into one single loan. This makes it easier to have one monthly payment at one interest rate instead of multiple loans at varying rates. Consolidation takes the weighted average of your interest rates to come up with the new rate. Student loan refinancing on the other hand works by taking one loan out to pay off all of your existing loans, leaving you with just one payment. Refinancing has the benefit of letting you seek out better interest rates and loan terms.

Student Loan Consolidation
Like we said above, consolidation simply takes all of your existing loans and consolidates them into one single loan using a weighted average of your interest rates to determine the new rate. Consolidation can be done with federal loans through a Direct Consolidation Loan. By doing this you’ll keep all the benefits of your federal loans and might be necessary for enrollment in federal programs such as income-based repayment plans. Another drawback is that you cannot consolidate private and federal loans into a single loan.

Consolidation won’t save you any money and could potentially cost you more in interest. Consolidation makes sense if you’re struggling to pay your minimum requirements each month and want to extend the terms of your loan. You might also become eligible for income-driven repayment plans where you pay less each month if you’re not making much money, but more once you start earning more.

Student Loan Refinancing
Refinancing is a way to take out a new private loan to pay off all your existing student loans. There is no federal loan refinancing program so you’ll have to use a private lender which means you might miss out on any federal loan benefits you might be receiving. Loan refinancing has the added benefit of letting you negotiate a lower interest rate and different repayment terms which has the potential to save you a lot of money in interest.

Refinancing makes sense if you’re looking to lower your interest rates or switch to different repayment terms. Just like other loans, the rates and terms you’ll get will depend on your credit score and current income.

Why you shouldn’t refinance or consolidate your loans:
If you’re currently part of a loan forgiveness program through your work, you might want to skip refinancing or consolidating your loans or else the forgiveness terms might start over. You should check with your workplace to find out what the terms are for your specific loan forgiveness program. Additionally, loan consolidation might lead to the loss of some borrower benefits, such as interest rate discounts, principal rebates, or loan cancellation benefits as a result of switching lenders.

Home Loan / Mortgage Refinancing
Being one of the biggest purchases you can make with one of the longest repayment terms, a home loan can have a dramatic effect on your finances. This makes home loans a great option for refinancing in order to save you money each month.

Like other loan refinancing, when you refinance a home loan you’re taking out a new loan to pay off your old one. There are many reasons you might consider refinancing your home loan and may include lowering your interest rate, shortening the loan term, switching from/to an adjustable rate mortgage (ARM), consolidating debt or taking equity out on your home (cash out).

The old rule for refinancing a home loan was when the interest rate was 2% lower than what you’re currently paying. Now, most lenders will advise you to refinance even if you can only save 1% on your interest rate.

Home loan refinancing has a few drawbacks to consider. First, refinancing a home loan often includes closing costs that can be 3-6% of your mortgage. Second, you might be required to have an appraisal, title search and pay for application fees. All of these can be combined into an amount called the "break even point" which will help you determine if refinancing is right for you. The break even point is calculated by dividing the total closing costs by the amount you’ll save each month. For example, if you refinance and have $3,000 in closing costs and save $100 per month, it will take you 30 months, or 2.5 years, to break even on the cost of refinancing. If you plan on staying in your home longer than that then refinancing is probably a good option.

Another thing to consider is the rate and term of the new loan. It’s possible that refinancing your existing 30 year loan to a new 30 year loan could cost you more in interest over the lifetime of the loan. This is less of an issue if you refinance early on, but looking at these numbers will also help you figure out if refinancing is right for you.

Depending on your current interest rate and what the going rates are for loans, you could potentially switch from a 30 year fixed rate mortgage to a 15 year fixed rate mortgage with a much lower interest rate but not pay much more per month. This is the best way to dramatically reduce the amount of interest you’ll pay over the lifetime of the loan.

Cash-out or home equity loans are a different type of refinancing where you take out a new loan for more than your existing loan amount. You can then use the difference in amounts for home improvements, college tuition or paying off other debts. Keep in mind that you’ll still be paying interest on this money so using a home equity loan to pay off something like credit card debt will still result in paying interest on that. Another potential issue is transferring from an unsecured to a secured debt. If you miss a payment on your credit card you’ll lower your credit score and get calls from debt collectors. If you miss payments on your mortgage you’re at risk of foreclosure and losing your home entirely.

How much can refinancing save me?
While there are too many variables at play to give you a straight answer, there are many calculators available online that can help you determine if refinancing one of your loans is right for you. Simply do an online search for "xxxx loan refinancing calculator" and you’ll find several different tools that can help you make the decision. Keep in mind that refinancing isn’t always about saving you the most money. If you’re going through tough times and are having trouble paying your minimum monthly payments, refinancing at a longer term can help dramatically reduce those monthly payments while you get yourself back into a stable financial position.

This is part of our weekly Money Management Tips series that aims to help you take more control of your finances. This series gives tips on everything from tracking your spending to improving your credit score.

Save Money by Making Smarter Meal Choices

7/20/2017 in Money Management Tips

Cutting down on your food expenses is one of the easiest ways to save extra money each month.

In this blog post we’ll use some eating habits that we believe are about normal for a single adult living and working in the US. Then, we’ll show how you can save nearly $100 each week by simply doing a better job of buying and cooking your own food. Everyone is different and your daily habits might not fall in line with the example but we hope you can take some of these ideas and apply it to your situation.

Breakfast:


Expensive
Fast food breakfast on the way to work: egg muffin w/ coffee or juice = $5
Frugal
Similar breakfast at home: 2x eggs ($0.28), piece of toast ($0.20) and coffee ($0.22) = $0.70

This is a savings of $4.30 per day. If you don’t want to purchase a coffee maker, there are good and inexpensive alternatives for making a single cup such as the Aeropress or a french press. The cheapest solution would be to use instant coffee.

Lunch:


Expensive
Fast food combo meal = $8
Frugal
Pack your own lunch. There are a huge choice of options here but we’ll stick with an easy to prepare lunch. Sandwich w/ apple and chips. Water to drink = $3.35 ($0.40 for bread, $1.50 for meat, $0.20 for tomato, $0.10 for onion, $0.20 for lettuce, $0.70 for apple, $0.25 for chips)

This is a savings of $4.65 per day. While microwavable meals may seem cheap and easy, we don’t recommend them because they usually aren’t that filling and are generally not that healthy. Another great way to cut your lunch costs even more is to eat leftovers.

Snacks:


Expensive
Crackers or candy bar from vending machine = $1.00
Frugal
Buy snacks in bulk from the store instead of buying individually when hungry. For example, buy nuts in bulk for $4/lb = $0.50 per snack

This is a savings of $0.50 per day. Another alternative is to eat your lunch gradually throughout the afternoon so you don’t have to purchase additional food for snacking.

Dinner:


Expensive
Grabbing fast food or eating at a restaurant = $8-15
Frugal
Making a dinner that will last several days (see assumptions at bottom of post). Chicken, veggie mix and rice = $4.70

This is a savings of around $10 per day. The added benefit is you now have 2-3 extra meals for lunches or dinners later in the week. If you already eat dinner at home try to plan and cook meals that will last several days instead of buying a frozen dinner that will only last you one meal.

Adding all of this up will save you $19.45 per day. Over the course of a 5 day work week this will save you just shy of $100 per week. You can increase the amount saved by spending a couple hours once per week making a lot of food that you can refrigerate or freeze and then eat throughout the week. Investing in a slow cooker and making a hearty stew or slow cooking some meat and then pairing that with some rice and veggies makes for a filling and extremely cheap meal.

If you need to eat out at a restaurant, you can always save a couple of dollars by ordering water instead of a soda.

We recommend setting up your Spending Categories to really drill down into where your food spending is going. If you’re already categorizing all of your expenses then the next step is to set a budget for both your eating out and your groceries and work on spending less money eating out and shift that over to groceries where every dollar you spend goes much farther.

If you’ve changed your eating habits and have noticed the changes in your budgets, we’d love for you to share your experience in the comments!

Assumptions:
  • Breakfast:
    • 18 pack of eggs costs $2.50
    • 18 slice loaf of good bread costs $4
    • 1 lb of ground coffee costs $8 (36 servings per pound)
    • Assumes you already have butter / jam for toast
  • Lunch:
    • Costs for sandwich ingredients depend on how much you use per sandwich.
    • Drink water to save even more money
  • Dinner (enough for 3-4 meals):
    • 3 lbs chicken thighs @ 2.50/lb = $7.50
    • 1 onion = $1
    • 1 bell pepper = $1
    • 1 broccoli crown = $2
    • Box of seasoned rice = $2.50

This is part of our weekly Money Management Tips series that aims to help you take more control of your finances. This series gives tips on everything from tracking your spending to improving your credit score.

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