Preparing for the Unexpected with Emergency and Rainy Day Funds

6/20/2017 in Money Management Tips

Do you have enough saved to cover a major car or home repair or unexpected hospital bill? If not, having money set aside for emergencies is extremely important.

In this Money Management Tips post we’ll explore some ways to help ensure you’ll be able to afford any large unexpected bills.

What is a rainy day / emergency fund?
For the sake of simplicity we’ll be referring to this money as an emergency fund through the rest of this article. An emergency fund is money you’ve set aside for any unexpected bills, job loss, illness or decrease in salary. It’s a way to make sure you’ve got some excess cash available in case of an emergency so you don’t have to rely on credit cards which can potentially lead to large amounts of credit card debt.

If the transmission dies on your car do you have the means to pay the $2,000-$3,000 to get it fixed? If the furnace in your house dies in the middle of the winter do you have a few thousand dollars to buy a new one? If you were seriously injured in an accident and need to cover a several thousand dollar insurance deductible, can you do that? Will you be able to cover a four to seven months of rent / mortgage and expenses if you suddenly lose your job?

These are all cases where having money set aside in an emergency fund will make an extremely difficult time a lot easier to manage.

How should I manage my emergency fund?
This really comes down to how you manage your own finances. If you have the discipline to keep everything in one account then all you need to do is make sure you have extra cash available in your checking or savings account (How much? We’ll cover that later).

Another option is to have separate accounts for your various emergency funds. Keeping this money in a high yield savings account is a great way to earn a little extra money as well. Using this method, you’d have one combined or separate accounts for what you’d like to cover with your emergency funds. For example, if you have a car and own your home then it might be good to have an account for each. Then, each month you’d transfer some amount of money to each of those accounts where the money stays hidden away until an emergency occurs.

If you decide to open an account for each type of emergency it’s important to make sure the account has enough money to cover your needs if an emergency occurs. Usually a few thousand dollars will cover an emergency or unexpected bill.

How much money should I have in my emergency fund?
This really depends on your financial situation and what kind of emergencies you might encounter. Someone living in a rented apartment with no car will need far less of an emergency fund than someone who owns a home and has multiple vehicles.

At the minimum we’d suggest having at least $1,000 set aside for each vehicle you own. Take a look at your health insurance information and find out what your deductible is and keep that amount. This could be anywhere between $500-$3,000 depending on your insurance plan. If you have a spouse and children, keeping the deductible amounts for them is also advisable. Owning a home comes with a lot of unexpected expenses as well. Having at least $2,000 put away for any emergency replacements would be a good start. This would let you quickly buy a new oven, a/c unit, refrigerator, etc without having to worry about the money. Having an account to cover personal expenses for a few months would also be great in the case of job loss. Simply add up all your expenses (mortgage/rent, car loan, groceries, gas, etc) for 3-4 months and keep that amount tucked away.

If you don’t have the money available to immediately transfer to your various emergency funds then you can always transfer $25-$50 per month into your accounts until you’ve reached your necessary amounts.

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.

8 Ways to Invest Your Money and Earn More Interest

6/13/2017 in Money Management Tips

Here are 8 ideas that will help you make your savings work for you by taking advantage of higher interest rate and other investment accounts.

This Money Management Tips post lists some ways you can earn a little more from your money that’s just sitting in a low yield savings account.

Before we get into some of the various accounts and investments, it’s important to remember that you should always have some money available for any unexpected accidents or emergencies. You don’t want to have all of your cash tied up in investments that you can’t immediately reach.

In this post we’ll list some choices in order of how risky the investment is. Generally, the less risky an investment is the less return you’ll get. It’s up to you to determine your level of risk. We break down each investment based on risk, amount of work, liquidity of your money and potential return on investment. Balancing these categories is important to determining which investment is right for you.

1) Standard Checking / Savings Accounts
No Risk. No Work. High Liquidity. Very Low Return. FDIC Insured. 0.01-0.05%
These are your standard checking and savings accounts from most national banks. You can quickly remove money from these accounts to pay bills or to use in case of emergency.

2) High Yield Online Savings / Money Market Accounts
No Risk. No Work. High Liquidity. Low Return. FDIC Insured. 1%
These are usually online-only accounts or special accounts set up through your bank. You can usually withdrawal or transfer your money out of the account fairly easy but read the fees carefully because you can be charged for those withdrawals in some cases. LendEDU has a great resource for the latest Money Market accounts and going rates. They break down the features of each account and give some pros/cons to help you choose the best money market account for you. Check out the full resource here: LendEDU Money Market Account guide

3) Certificate of Deposit (CD) Accounts
No Risk. Little Work. Medium Liquidity. Low Return. FDIC Insured. 0.5-2%
CDs are what’s referred to as a Timed Deposit. This means you deposit your money and agree to leave it in the account for a set amount of time, with longer durations generally giving higher return. Removing money early can result in fees. There is a technique called CD Laddering where you start separate 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 year CDs. Once one of the CDs matures, you invest the money into a 5 year CD. The result is that after 5 years you’ll have a CD maturing each year.

4) Bond Index or Mutual Funds with a Brokerage Account
Low Risk. Some Work. Medium Liquidity. Low Reward. Not FDIC Insured. 1-3%
By opening a Brokerage account and letting others manage your money, the amount of work is low and you’re leaving all the investing to professionals whose job it is to pick the best investments. Since these funds are managed, there’s usually a small percentage fee associated with them. These funds are usually made up of many different investments or can be very specific in the companies the mutual funds are comprised of. For example, rather than investing in several health care companies you could invest in a health care fund that has many different health care related companies in their portfolio.

5) Purchasing Government / Treasury Bonds direct
Low Risk. Some Work. Medium Liquidity. Medium Reward. Not FDIC Insured. 1-5%
Treasury Bonds are fixed interest savings bonds issued by the government and are guaranteed to be paid out. There are Treasury Bills, Treasury Notes and Treasury Bonds. Each have different times to maturation and will have different interest rates.

6) Stock Index Funds, Mutual Funds & ETFs with Brokerage Account
Medium Risk. Low Work. Medium Liquidity. Potentially Moderate Reward. Not FDIC Insured. 6%+
This is similar to #4, but instead of investing in Bond Indexes you’re investing in Stock Index Funds and ETFs in addition to mutual funds. These generally have higher returns than other investments and depending on the fund you invest with. Research should be done to make sure the fund you’re investing in has a good history and fund managers. These funds usually have fees and minimum purchases associated with them.

7) Trading Individual Stocks
High Risk. High Work. Medium Liquidity. Potentially High Reward. Not FDIC Insured
Rather than investing in a fund that invests in many individual stocks, you’re fully in charge of buying and selling your own stocks. This means you have to do due diligence in selecting stocks you believe will give you the best return. There are fees associated with both buying and selling stocks.

8) Investing in Residential or Commercial Real Estate
High Risk. High Work. Low Liquidity. Potentially High Reward. Not FDIC Insured
This requires a high upfront investment but has the potential to provide great returns. There are several ways to invest in real estate ranging from buying, renovating and reselling a home, renting properties, buying and then leasing commercial space or Real Estate Investment Trusts (RETI).

We just want to reiterate that you should double check all fees associated with accounts and investments and do your research to make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into. Make sure you're also being smart with your money and not investing all of your savings in a very risky investment that might end up with you losing money instead of making it.

Even with a few minor changes, like opening a high yield savings account, you can potentially earn much more than you are currently if your money is parked in a standard checking or savings account.

We’ll dive into more detail for the various accounts and investments in future Money Management Tips posts.

If you have any feedback or want to share with us and others how you’ve made your money give you a better return on investment, please post in the comments!

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.

What is your Credit Score and how can you raise it?

6/6/2017 in Money Management Tips

Credit scores are one of the most important factors when it comes to getting loan approvals or getting good interest rates on those loans. If you have poor or bad credit (scores below 650) then it would be in your best interest to work on raising your score.

This blog post covers how your credit score is calculated and gives you some advice on ways to help raise your score.

Find your Credit Score / Credit Report
Before getting started we recommend checking your credit score and getting your free annual credit report. Your credit report will list all inquiries, outstanding loans and debts and all lines of credit. You’ll use this report to track down any discrepancies and work with debt collectors to lower or drop some of your outstanding debts. In the United States, you can obtain your credit report for free through AnnualCreditReport.com. This is what the credit rating agencies use to determine your credit score.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau provides some information on how to get your credit score. If you already have a credit card you should check to see if they provide you with your score for free. We know that both Chase and Capital One customers can check their credit score for free.

How is your credit score calculated?
Since the credit reporting companies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) use proprietary formulas to determine your scores, there is no way to know exactly how your score is calculated but there has been a lot of research done and some general guidelines can be used. What is known is that the calculation is broken into five major categories with varying levels of importance, all of which are taken into account when determining your overall score. These categories are (in order of importance):

  • Payment history (35%)
    • The payment history category is determined by looking at how well you’ve paid your prior obligations. Past issues such as bankruptcy and delinquency are also factored into this category. The severity of issues, time it took to get resolved and how long since the problems are also factors in determining this part of your score.

      The best way to keep this portion of your score high is to pay your debts early or on time, every time.
  • Amount owed (30%)
    • This is how much you currently owe to lenders. This category looks at current amount of debt and the number of different types of debt you currently have. If you have many different lines of credit, loans or debts, this will adversely affect your score.

      There is also a ratio called the 30% Credit Utilization Rule that says your score is negatively affected if you currently borrowed more than 30% of your credit limit, not just for your overall combined limits but for each individual line of credit. This means if you have a $1,000 credit limit on a credit card and you spend $400 one month, your score could take a slight hit. Keeping your spending low will help improve your credit score.
  • Length of credit history (15%)
    • There’s not much you can do to affect this one. This is how long you’ve had lines of credit open. The more credit history you have the better your credit score will be. Someone with 10 years of on-time payments is a lot less risky than someone with 1 year of on-time payments in the eyes of creditors. Keep in mind that closing old credit cards can have a negative impact on your credit score since the history associated with those cards will be removed.

      If you don’t already have any lines of credit, it’s recommended that you open a credit card (more about that below) to start building some history.
  • New credit (10%)
    • If you’re constantly opening new lines of credit this is seen as a negative in the eyes of the credit reporting agencies. Opening new cards can be seen as you having financial pressures which indicates problems to them. Opening one new card isn’t going to greatly affect your score but opening 5 new cards probably will.
  • Type of credit used (10%)
    • Having a mix of credit types is seen as a positive to the credit reporting agencies. This means someone with on-time payments to a mortgage, auto loan and credit cards is a lot more trustworthy than someone who only has on-time payments made to one credit card.

      This is a relatively small percentage of your credit score though so it’s not recommended to go out and get a new loan just to try and improve your score.

Improving your credit score:
It becomes a lot easier to work on improving your credit score now that you know the factors that determine your credit score. If you already have one or a few credit cards, the most important thing you can do is make sure you’re not maxing the card out (try to stay below that 30% of credit limit rule) and paying your bill on time.

If you’re having trouble staying below the 30% rule, make sure you’re properly tracking your spending in ClearCheckbook and look for areas you’re overspending and can cut back on. One extremely easy way to keep your spending low and to ensure you pay on time is to use your credit card for one thing per month, like buying a tank of gas, and then immediately pay the bill when the transaction posts. This will keep your payment history excellent and you’ll also keep your debt utilization low which is very important.

Raising your credit score above 700
The technique below was taken by researching what others have done to raise their score from the 500’s up into the 700’s. We don’t guarantee that these techniques will work for everyone and the issues might not be the same ones you face which are causing you to have a low score. We hope you can take some ideas from this and apply it to raising your score.

Step 1: Get your current credit score
The first step to raising your credit score is to know what your current credit score is. We mentioned a few ways you can get your score earlier in this post but you can also sign up for a free service like Credit Karma that lets you regularly track your credit score. Credit Karma doesn’t require any billing information and is legitimately free. They make their money off targeted advertising based on your credit history.

Credit scores range from 300-850 and are broken into a few categories based on your score. The score categories are: 500 or below = bad; 550-649 = poor; 650-699 = fair; 700-759 = good; 750 and above = excellent.

Step 2: Get your full credit report
Next, you’ll want to get a full credit report that lists all accounts. Use this report to find any accounts that are delinquent or have gone to collection agencies. You’ll be using this information in the next step to work on removing some of these delinquent accounts.

Like we mentioned above, you can use AnnualCreditReport.com to get a free credit report.

Step 3: Dispute debts / Negotiate with debt collectors
Call each of your accounts and dispute each one. The hope here is that they can’t prove the account is real or that they followed the law in regards to the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and they will remove the account from their system, and thus, your report. Also ensure that any debt collectors that have contacted you are adhering to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. If you believe a collection agency is breaking the terms of this act you can file a dispute with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

For the remaining delinquent and/or other accounts in collections that weren’t removed, work on negotiating down the debt. Call the account holders and let them know you can’t afford to pay the entire debt but want to settle now and can pay them a certain amount (target about half of what the debt amount is). You’ll probably need to speak to a manager to get this approved but this can greatly reduce the amount owed.

An additional option is to sign up for a service that sends letters on your behalf to your remaining accounts demanding that they show proof and accuracy of any negative items on your credit report. These services do charge either an upfront or monthly fee so they may not be for everyone. While you might have ethical issues with using a service like this, it has helped people in the past get items removed from their credit report.

After doing all of this the goal is to have removed or reduced the amount owed to as many of your accounts as possible which should make it easier to pay them off.

Step 4: Pay off any remaining delinquent accounts
After negotiating debt reductions you’ll need to pay off your existing debts. If you have the money available then you should pay off the debts immediately. If not, we recommend using the ClearCheckbook Debt Snowball Tool to manage your debt payments. Paying off your existing debts will dramatically improve your credit score since the amount of debt you owe makes up 30% of your credit score.

Step 5: Start building good credit
Because payment history makes up the biggest portion of your credit score it’s important to have a good track record of on-time payments. One way to do this is to get a credit card and make one purchase per month and immediately pay the card off. An extremely easy way to do this would be to use the card once per month to buy a tank of gas for your car.

Depending on your current credit score you might not get approved for an actual credit card. If that’s the case you can sign up for a secured credit card. Secured credit cards require that you essentially pre-pay the card with a certain amount. Credit limits on these cards are generally low but that’s OK since all you care about is making the one small purchase and immediately paying it off in full each month.

Step 6: Continue with on-time payments / building credit
Since the most important aspect of your credit score is your payment history, it’s extremely important to continue to pay your loans, credit cards and bills on time. If you had a secured credit card and have been using that to raise your score, see if you can open a traditional credit card and continue making a small purchase on that and then pay it off in full each month.

Having a few different lines of credit is always a good thing but that doesn’t mean you should go buy a new car just to get an auto loan. Make sure you can afford to purchase a new vehicle or home if you’re planning on opening a new line of credit.

Step 7: Work with any account holders to remove late payment reports
This falls into the “it never hurts to try" category. If you made some late payments to a credit card or auto loan in the past but have had good payment history since then, you should try calling the companies and asking them if they will remove the late payment notices from your report. This plays into the ‘Payment history’ category which is the biggest factor to determining your credit score. If the companies will remove these late payment notices then it can have a dramatic effect on your score.

Hard vs Soft Pulls
One last thing we wanted to mention before wrapping up this blog post are the two ways your credit score can be accessed. When you check your credit score through a service like Credit Karma or through your credit card’s website, these are soft pulls and do not affect your credit score at all. Hard pulls are made when applying for a loan, a new credit card, or anything that requires a company to check your FICO score. Hard pulls do affect your credit score and will remain as inquiries for several months.

Final words
There’s a lot that goes into determining your credit score. The most important things you can do are to pay your bills and debts on time, stay within the 30% rule and don’t open as many lines of credit as possible. Everything in this post is meant to provide some information and some possible ways for you to raise your credit score. We encourage you to do some follow up research on your own before attempting any of the techniques in this post.

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.

Setting up Categories to Better Track Your Spending

5/30/2017 in Money Management Tips

Setting up your spending categories appropriately is absolutely the best way to start tracking where your money is going and the first step to setting up your budgets.

In this Money Management Tips post we’ll cover the essentials of properly setting up your spending categories in ClearCheckbook, how to view your monthly spending and finally how to set up budgets to keep your spending in check.

Setting up your categories:

We automatically create some default categories for you when you sign up with ClearCheckbook. These are some commonly used categories but are definitely not all-encompassing and we encourage you to add as many spending categories as you need to properly track where your money is going.

To manage your categories, click on Settings at the top right side of the page and then click on Categories. At the top of the page you’ll see a form where you can add new categories.

Adding Spending Categories on ClearCheckbook

To add a new parent or sub category, enter the name of the new category in the Category Name field. Next, decide if you want this to be a parent or sub category. To create a new parent category, leave the Parent drop down list set to ‘No Parent’. If you select a category from the Parent drop down list, the new category will become a child of the selected category. Finally, click the Create Category button.

You want to make sure you create categories for everything you spend money on regularly. For example, if you regularly go to the movies, you should create a Movies category (maybe put this as a subcategory to Entertainment). If you do a lot of shopping you should create a Shopping parent category and then make subcategories for various articles of clothing. We’ll look at all of these in the reports later to see how much you’re spending and help you determine places you can cut back on.

Categorizing all of your transactions:

This step is extremely important. Whenever you add your expenses to ClearCheckbook you should be categorizing those transactions appropriately. When starting out, we recommend being extremely specific with your categorizing. For example, if you go to a store that sells both groceries and clothes and you buy some of both, you should split the transaction and categorize the amount you spent on each separately. Remember, when splitting a transaction the parent should not be categorized, just the split amounts.

Splitting a transaction on ClearCheckbook

Viewing your spending for your various categories:

We have several great reports for tracking where your money is being spent. The first is the Category -> Text reports.

Category Text reports on ClearCheckbook

The Category -> Text reports show a breakdown of your spending per category per month along with averages and totals for the year. Using this information you can quickly see how much money is being over spent in various categories that you might not have expected.

Another great report is the Category -> Pie by Year pie chart. This chart has all of your categorized spending broken apart by category for the entire year. Seeing large pieces of the pie can really help determine areas you need to cut back on spending.

Category Pie by Year reports on ClearCheckbook

Once you’ve looked at the various reports you should determine where you think you need to cut back on spending and how much you want to work on reducing your spending on your various categories.

Creating Budgets to keep your spending under control:

After identifying some categories you think you can cut back on, the next step is to create budgets to help you keep your spending in check. To create a new budget, click on Budgets at the top of the page. If you haven’t already created any budgets then you’ll see a form where you can add a new budget. If you’ve already added some budgets, click the blue “+Budget” button near the top of the page to bring up the Add Budget form.

Add a Budget on ClearCheckbook

Using the options of the form, set up the budget that best fits your needs. Starting out we’d recommend either a Weekly or Monthly budget. You can base when the budget resets around your payday or simply the start of the month. We’d also recommend not enabling the Rollover option at the beginning. By not selecting that option you can really see how well you’re staying under your budget month after month.

To be successful, it’s important to be realistic when determining how much to set your budgets. Start off by setting the budget to about 90% of what you normally spend each month. This way you won’t feel as pressured to cut back dramatically but it’ll still be noticeable in the amount you save.

Monitoring your budgets and being cognizant about your spending:

Now that you’ve set up budgets for your various spending categories it’s time to keep an eye on them and to be mindful of how you’re spending your money. After you’ve reined in your spending by staying under budget you can challenge yourself even further by reducing the budgeted amount even further, or by cutting out spending to some categories entirely.

What to do with all the extra money you’re saving?

Since you’ve got some extra money each month that you didn’t have before, this is a great excuse to pay more toward any existing debts or to save it away for a rainy day fund or retirement. We’d recommend first paying off any credit card or other small debts first using our Debt Snowball tool to manage your debt.

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.

ClearCheckbook Welcomes 2017!

1/1/2017 in ClearCheckbook News
The start of a new year always brings a renewed interest in keeping your finances under control. At ClearCheckbook we want to make this as easy for you as possible. To help make our Jiving (balancing / reconciling) process much easier to understand for beginners, we made a dedicated tutorial page that has a video tutorial as well as a guided written walkthrough and some troubleshooting FAQ's. This tutorial can be found here: https://www.clearcheckbook.com/help/jive

This time of year can also lead to some headaches when it comes to adding transactions. When you're adding a transaction, be very aware of which year you're adding it for. If you add some transactions for early 2017 and then go back to add some from December 2016, make sure the year is switched to 2016. Also, the opposite is true. If you're adding transactions from late last year and then want to add a transaction for January 2017, make sure the year is correct. If it's not correct, the transaction will be added as January 2016 and you won't see it at the top of your transaction list (since it'll be with all of the year old transactions).

2016 saw a lot of behind-the-scenes work plus some new features and a revamped iOS app. Plans for 2017 include a new Android app as well as a lot of enhancements to ClearCheckbook as a whole.

We've been very pleased with the continued growth of the site. You can help us even more though by spreading the word of ClearCheckbook to any friends or family members who might be looking to get a better grasp on their finances for the new year.

Thanks and happy new year!

- The ClearCheckbook Team

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