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Online Hacks for Snagging the Best Black Friday 2016 Deals

Snatching up a doorbuster deal on Black Friday is a little bit like winning the lottery: You’ll feel pretty lucky if it happens.

But unlike the random drawing of the lottery, picking Black Friday deals requires careful planning. Here are some tips, tricks and hacks that could increase your odds of getting the best deals while shopping online on the day after Thanksgiving.

Know when and where to shop

Inventory can sell out online just like at a physical location, especially if the rise in online shopping continues. In 2015, online sales rose 16% on Thanksgiving Day compared to the same day in 2014 and increased 7% year-over-year on Black Friday, according to analytics firm Slice Intelligence.

To get the best deals, prepare early by following the sale advertisements from your favorite stores before Black Friday. They likely will indicate which deals will be available online. Last year, Kohl’s offered its doorbusters exclusively in stores, while Best Buy made almost all deals available online and in stores.

The ads also will tell you what time the sales begin online. This year, Dell will debut its online sale on Nov. 23, while Office Depot kicks things off at 12:01 a.m. Nov. 24 (Thanksgiving Day).

» MORE: Full list of Black Friday 2016 store hours

Make an online account beforehand

Once you pick your desired stores and online sites, create an online profile ahead of time. Most retailers let you save information such as your shipping and billing address on their websites. This will expedite the purchase process and may help you get doorbusters before they run out.

Log on early

Punctuality is key. Make sure your computer or phone is ready for action a few minutes before the sale begins. Sign into your profile, scope out the products you want by size, color and other options, and then bookmark those webpages so that you can find them easily when the big event launches.

Review membership perks

If you’re a member of a retailer’s loyalty program or have a store credit card, you may receive Black Friday perks. Some companies lower prices or grant early access to sales for loyal customers. Year after year, Victoria’s Secret has given its Angel cardholders the first shot at Black Friday deals before other buyers.

Use multiple devices

If have a tablet and a laptop, why not use both of them? If a website is lagging when a sale starts, utilize as many devices as possible to see which one will load the site faster. That could help you snag a deal faster.

» MORE: Follow these tips to ensure the best deal when you shop online

Seek stackable discounts

Black Friday prices typically are low, so retailers may not offer additional discounts. But there may be coupon codes or free shipping offers that can be applied to your order. Look for these on a retailer’s website or its Black Friday ad, or on coupon aggregator sites. And, as always, compare prices between retailers to see which one has the best deal.

Maximize savings

Shopping online can provide additional savings. If you’re a member of a cash-back website such as Ebates or BeFrugal, for instance, activate your cash back by logging into the sites and then clicking over to your retailer of choice. If there’s a cash-back offer at the time, you’ll get a percentage of your purchase back. If you don’t have such an account, create one before the sales start.

If you have a rewards credit card, you may be able to get relevant cash back on your Black Friday purchases, depending on the bonus purchase categories offered by the card issuer.

Keep your personal information safe

Always be cautious about transmitting your personal information and credit card number over the internet. Make transactions only on websites your know and trust. Submit your financial information only over a secure connection (and not on public Wi-Fi).

Courtney Jespersen is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: Twitter: @courtneynerd.

Shopping Dealfinder Newsletter Get the best deals of the day and more!

Mortgage Rates Today, Friday, Oct. 21: Small Dip; Mortgage Refinancing Cooling Down

Thirty-year and 15-year fixed mortgage rates notched down a bit, while 5/1 ARM loan rates rose just a hair on Friday, according to a NerdWallet survey of mortgage rates published by national lenders this morning.

Mortgage Rates Today, Friday, Oct. 21 (Change from 10/20) 30-year fixed: 3.67% APR (-0.03) 15-year fixed: 3.09% APR (-0.01) 5/1 ARM: 3.60% APR (+0.01) Possibly higher rates may mean fewer mortgage refinances in 2017

In its monthly outlook report released on Thursday, Freddie Mac said that housing is still part of a slowly improving economy but that refinancing won’t pitch in as much money next year as it did this year.

“The economy and labor markets are looking better,” said Sean Becketti, chief economist of Freddie Mac. “We’re even seeing modest wage gains. And Fed watchers are increasingly predicting a December rate hike as things improve. However, worldwide economic growth is weak, and its prospects have gotten worse.”

Whether mortgage rates increase depends more on global growth and worldwide bond yields than Federal Open Market Committee policy, according to the report.

If worldwide bond yields return to pre-Brexit levels, mortgage interest rates will probably stay low for a while, the report said. A continued slow rise in rates is expected for the rest of this year and into the next, with 30-year fixed-rate mortgages averaging 3.9 percent a year from now. Since refinance activity is dependent on rates, a small increase in rates naturally shrinks the number of mortgage refinances.

Mortgage application data shows that in comparison to this summer, mortgage refinance activity is indeed slowing, but compared to last year at this time, applications are up by around 30 percent.  

Freddie Mac expects $1 trillion in refinance mortgage originations for this year, but 2017 volume may be under $600 billion. “Home purchase and home improvement mortgage activity will somewhat offset this, rising from $1 trillion in 2016 to $1.15 trillion in 2017,” the report said. “Total mortgage originations will fall about 18 percent from 2016 to 2017 in our forecast.”

Homeowners looking to lower their mortgage rate can shop for refinance lenders here.

NerdWallet daily mortgage rates are an average of the published APR with the lowest points for each loan term offered by a sampling of major national lenders. Annual percentage rate quotes reflect an interest rate plus points, fees and other expenses, providing the most accurate view of the costs a borrower might pay.

Michael Burge is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email:

What to Buy, and Skip, on Black Friday 2016

With huge sales and steep savings at nearly every retailer, Black Friday — the day after Thanksgiving — has long been touted as one of the best times of the year for buying just about anything.

But it’s not all discounts and deals on the 2016 post-Turkey Day shopping bonanza. Use this guide to determine what you should purchase and what you should skip on Nov. 25 to ensure you’re getting only the best bargains.

Buy: Previous models of Apple products

Traditionally, major retail stores such as Best Buy, Target and Wal-Mart discount Apple products each year on Black Friday, and previous-generation models usually see the most dramatic deals. These offers may include price cuts, free gift cards with purchase or a combination of both. This year, look for deals on MacBooks, iMacs, iPhones, iPads, Apple Watches and Apple TVs.

Last year, for instance, Target devoted almost an entire page of the bull’s-eye retailer’s 2015 Black Friday ad to Apple. Shoppers scored a free Target gift card when they bought any iPad Mini, iPad Air or Apple Watch. There was also a 20% discount on all iPods.

Skip: Toys

Toys are one of the seasonal purchase staples, but you might want to think twice before picking them up on Black Friday. Historically, it’s best to wait until closer to Christmas to purchase dolls, action figures and the like. You may run the risk that certain items will sell out, but you may also be able to find bigger savings on what’s left.

Last year, in the final days before Christmas, toys were on sale at Kmart, Wal-Mart and Big Lots, to name a few. Shoppers bought one toy and got a second toy at 50% off on Monster High dolls and accessories, Fisher-Price preschool toys and Block Tech playsets, as well as activity and science sets.

» MORE: Full list of 2016 Black Friday store hours

Buy: Gaming system bundles

Black Friday is for gamers just as much as it is for shoppers. This year, look for savings on video games and video game systems from retailers such as Best Buy, Target, Wal-Mart and GameStop. You’ll find particularly great offers on gaming bundles. Traditionally, these include the game console plus a combination of games and accessories.

Last year, video game retailer GameStop took $50 off both the Xbox One 500GB Gears of War Ultimate Bundle and the PlayStation 4 500GB Uncharted Collection Bundle.

Skip: Christmas decorations

You’ve likely seen the blowout post-Christmas clearance sales every year on Dec. 26 as you made your way to the store to return that gift that missed the mark. The absolute best time to buy Christmas decorations, wrapping paper, tinsel and other seasonal trimmings is right after Christmas (for obvious reasons).

But if you need these items before the holiday, don’t buy them on Black Friday. Sure, you’ll see plenty of deals on artificial trees and rolls of wrapping paper, especially at home and craft stores, but retailers are more eager to slash prices the closer it gets to Christmas.

Buy: Electronics (TVs, tablets and smartphones)

Electronics deals are a Black Friday staple, and for many consumers, that means shopping for a new TV, tablet or smartphone. In 2015, Target offered an impressive $249.99 deal on a 55-inch Westinghouse LED TV.

Over at Staples, tablets were all the rage. Shoppers could save up to 25% on select iPad models. Staples also dropped the price of the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 Lite 7-inch down to $79.99 (regularly $139.99).

No matter where you choose to spend your Black Friday (or your Thanksgiving), you’re almost guaranteed to find TV and tablet doorbusters. Another electronics deal to keep an eye out for: smartphones. Verizon offered $100 off the retail price of select Android smartphones last year.

» MORE: Black Friday 2016 ad leaks

Skip: Bedding

You’ve got the entertainment center covered, but you should hesitate before stocking up on supplies to refresh the look of your bedroom this Black Friday. The lowest prices on bedding and linens have been known to appear in January during what are called “white sales,” so hold off until then if you can. January 2016 white sales took place at Macy’s, Pottery Barn, Nordstrom and more.

Buy: Video games, CDs, DVDs

If you’re in need of some affordable stocking stuffers, look no further than the video game, CD, DVD and Blu-ray department at most major retailers this Black Friday. You’ll find films and gaming titles deeply discounted from their original prices.

In 2015, for example, Best Buy offered select Blu-ray titles for $9.99 each and up to 70 CD titles for $6.99 each. Wal-Mart had certain video games for $25 each and a selection of special-buy DVD titles for just $1.96 apiece.

Skip: Outdoor essentials

You won’t see too many grills or patio furniture sets plastered on the front pages of Black Friday ads this year. That’s because, not surprisingly, outdoor products and patio furniture are deeply discounted immediately after summer ends.

If you didn’t pick up these products at the close of this summer, wait until Labor Day sales roll around next year. Can’t wait until then? Another viable option is the Spring Black Friday Sale that home improvement store Lowe’s usually holds each year.

Buy: Home appliances

No secret here. Black Friday is well-known for its offers of huge savings on washers, dryers, refrigerators and kitchen appliances. Look for similar deep discounts again this year.

Last year at Sears, the Kenmore 4.3-cubic-foot washer and 7.3-cubic-foot dryer were on sale for $799.98 for the pair. That’s a 57% discount. Best Buy took $1,500 off the price of a Samsung 28.2-cubic-foot 4-Door French Door Smart Refrigerator, bringing it down to $2,099.99.

If you’re in the market for smaller appliances such as coffee makers, mixers, blenders or vacuum cleaners, expect deals this year from department stores such as Kohl’s, J.C. Penney and Macy’s.

Skip: Winter clothing

Fall and winter clothing generally isn’t the best value on Black Friday. Jeans, for instance, see better sales in October, and retailers frequently offer big clearance sales on jackets when winter gives way to spring.

Of course, if you need something to keep you warm before then, you’ll be able to find some bargains this Black Friday. Year after year, Macy’s and J.C. Penney have offered doorbuster deals on women’s boots. In the past, select pairs have been just $19.99 each.

Buy: Travel deals

Whether it’s hotel rooms, ski lift tickets or airfare, you can expect big deals on travel this Black Friday and Cyber Monday (Nov. 28). Check for deals from online travel sites like Expedia and major airlines alike. Note: In the past, most of these promotions were available for a very limited time.

Skip: Mail-in rebates

If you want to avoid some of the hassle related to Black Friday shopping, resist deals that require a mail-in rebate. Unless you’re disciplined enough to fill out the form and wait to receive the rebate, you could end up paying more than you intended. And even if you do follow through with rebate, you’ll have to shell out a higher price at the register before getting some of your money back.

Always read the fine print; some kitchen appliances, electronics and other popular items may require you to fill out a mail-in rebate to achieve the advertised price. At Kohl’s, for example, some small kitchen appliances were available for $7.99 last year — but that was after a $12 mail-in rebate.

Buy: Online doorbusters

Finally, for the ultimate combination of convenience and savings, spring for online doorbusters this year. Plenty of big box retailers are bringing their doorbusters online this Thanksgiving and Black Friday. Office Depot and OfficeMax, for instance, will be closed on Thanksgiving Day 2016, but deals will be available online starting at 12:01 a.m. Eastern time on the holiday.

Courtney Jespersen is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: Twitter: @courtneynerd.

Shopping Dealfinder Newsletter Get the best deals on Black Friday and beyond!                        

Ask Brianna: How Can I Cut Costs as a Wedding Guest?

“Ask Brianna” is a Q&A column from NerdWallet for 20-somethings or anyone else starting out. I’m here to help you manage your money, find a job and pay off student loans — all the real-world stuff no one taught us how to do in college. Send your questions about postgrad life to

Q: I’ve been invited to a bunch of weddings, and I have no idea how I’m going to afford travel and gifts for all of them. How can I cut costs as a wedding guest?

A: Each week brings a new engagement announcement on Facebook, and every save-the-date card makes your long-held dream to backpack across Europe seem even more remote. I’ve been there.

During your 20s or 30s, back-to-back weddings can turn a joyful occasion into one breathless swipe of a credit card after another. These festivities come right when most of us are trying desperately to pay off our student loans, save for a house or move to a new apartment that’s more “Frasier” and less “Girls.”

As much as you want to celebrate your friend or family member’s love, you shouldn’t blow your savings on their wedding. Just as importantly, you shouldn’t feel guilty about turning down an invitation occasionally, even if that seems soul-crushingly awkward.

Follow these tips to emerge from your next string of weddings without credit card debt haunting you — unlike the groomsman who gave that embarrassing toast at the reception; his speech will follow him forever.

Set your own wedding budget

No rules state you need to shell out $100 on every wedding gift, no matter how close you are to the bride or groom. Only you can determine how much you’ll spend on each wedding, says Lizzie Post, etiquette expert and president of the Emily Post Institute. Set your own spending limit and prioritize the people most important to you. You’ll avoid arriving at the destination wedding for co-worker No. 3 with a maxed-out credit card and a thick aura of resentment.

To start, choose a maximum wedding budget for the upcoming year or for the next several ceremonies you’ve been invited to. Include the total amount you plan to spend on travel, lodging, attire, gifts and additional pre-wedding events if you’re a member of the bridal party.

As you plan your budget, make sure to keep at least a few hundred dollars in an emergency fund, and try not to carry a balance on your credit cards.

If you can’t afford it, politely decline

Say you decide $500 is a reasonable amount to allocate to wedding costs for the year. You’ll now be able to accept invitations only to those events that fit your budget. That could mean attending your close friend’s wedding in a different city but not your acquaintance’s local one.

When you break the news, no need to explain that your budget is the culprit. A simple “no” RSVP and “I’m really sorry, but I won’t be able to make it” is fine, Post says. If you’re closer with the couple, say, “Between budget and schedule, I just really can’t make it work.” You should still send a gift, but use the tips below to save some cash.

Weddings also include many other events, such as engagement parties and bridal showers, and you have even more obligations if you’re a bridesmaid or groomsman. Ask the best man or maid of honor how much the bachelor or bachelorette party will likely cost before committing. If you can’t afford to go, you are hereby permitted to decline any pre-wedding events, even as a member of the bridal party.

“It’s more important for you to be present with them on the big day,” says Jennifer Spector, spokeswoman and director of brand strategy at Zola, a wedding registry website.

Keep gifts minimal

A “yes” RSVP means you’ll attend the event and bring a gift unless the invitation explicitly says otherwise, Post says. This tradition holds true even for destination weddings. If you have to fly to the event and pay for a hotel, you’re still on the hook for a present.

When you’re on a budget, consider contributing to a group gift, Spector says, which might be an option through the couple’s registry: Put $30 toward your friend’s coveted KitchenAid stand mixer, for instance, instead of buying the whole thing.

Cookbooks and small household items are also solid lower-cost options, Post says. Handmade gifts can be cheaper and more personal, but they work best when you have a particular talent or craft that you’re known for.

“If you’re going to go the homemade route, it needs to really be special,” Post says.

Brianna McGurran is a staff writer at NerdWallet. Email: Twitter: @briannamcscribe.

This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by The Associated Press.


Reducing Your Income to Escape the Alternative Minimum Tax

By Geoffrey M. Zimmerman, CFP

Learn more about Geoffrey at NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor

If you got hit by the federal alternative minimum tax last year or think you might get hit this year, now is the time to think about your tax planning. There may still be some ways you can escape the AMT. Talk to your tax professional about the best strategy for you, but one way to avoid the AMT is to reduce your alternative minimum taxable income (AMTI) to the point where the AMT is less than the ordinary tax.

How it works

The AMT is an alternative method of calculating income tax that runs parallel to the regular tax system. Under the regular system, taxable income largely drives what tax bracket you fall into. I’ll call this “regular taxable income” (RTI). With the AMT, certain types of income, exemptions and itemized deductions also factor into your taxable income amount. You must calculate both your RTI and your AMTI to determine your tax liability under each system. Then you pay whichever is higher.

To find your AMTI, calculate your RTI and then add certain types of income that normally aren’t included. Examples include income from the exercise of incentive stock options, tax-exempt interest on industrial revenue bonds — a certain type of municipal bond — and depreciation. You also add back certain deductions such as property taxes, state income taxes, depreciation and interest on home equity loans. Finally, while deductions for medical expenses are still allowed, the threshold for claiming the deduction under AMT is higher than under RTI. So, under the AMT, fewer of your medical expenses will be deductible.

All of the above are examples of AMT preference items. The greater the number and amount of preference items you have relative to your income, the more likely you are to be hit by the AMT.

Escaping the AMT

Avoiding the AMT will involve either strategies that reduce both your RTI and your AMTI or strategies that reduce your AMTI relative to your RTI. Talk with your advisor about the following:

Retirement contributions: Maximize your contributions to qualified retirement plans such as your 401(k). The contributions reduce your adjusted gross income as well as your taxable income, regardless of whether you’re hit by the AMT. Reducing your AGI can be important, because as your AGI rises, your ability to use itemized deductions is slowly reduced. Qualified plan contributions also help you save for retirement.

Deferred compensation: If your company offers you access to a nonqualified deferred-compensation plan — essentially a promise by the employer to hold on to the assets until a future point in time — you may want to elect to defer income into the plan. By deferring compensation, you also defer taxation on the amount contributed to the plan, plus any growth, until you withdraw the money, typically when you leave your job or retire. The election to defer income normally doesn’t take effect until the next year, but it may still affect year-end planning for the current year. Work with your advisor to weigh the pros and cons of this income-reduction strategy.

Itemized deductions: The type, number and amount of deductions you take are key factors in determining whether you must pay the AMT or the regular income tax. Consider deferring certain itemized deductions if you fall under the AMT. For example, state income taxes can be an itemized deduction under ordinary tax but not under the AMT. If you’re making estimated tax payments, your fourth-quarter payment is due on or before Jan. 15. So if you review your tax situation in December and find that you’re going to fall under the AMT in the current year but possibly not in the following year, you would choose to defer that state tax payment until after Jan. 1, instead of making it this year.

Charitable contributions: If this year is an abnormally high income year, pushing you into the AMT, consider making a larger than normal donation. This is known as “bunching” several years’ worth of charitable contributions. You can give either directly to charities or through a donor-advised fund offered by a broker or a community foundation. Donations to these funds are deductible in the year of contribution, and once you’ve made the donation, the money may be distributed to charitable organizations over time according to your wishes.

Incentive stock options: With incentive stock options, you generally don’t have to pay ordinary income tax on the difference between the option strike price (the exercise price in your contract) and the stock price on the date of exercise. This is known as the bargain element. If you’ve exercised and held ISOs in the current year and expect to be subject to the AMT, consider selling some or all of the stock before the end of the year. If you sell the stock before you meet the qualifying holding periods — at least two years from grant date and at least one year from the date of exercise — the sale results in a disqualifying disposition. This makes the portion of the revenue attributable to the bargain element regular taxable income (RTI), not an AMT preference item.

If you’re going to do a disqualifying disposition to help reduce AMT, you must do it in the same year as the exercise. An exercise of an ISO could trigger both the AMT, in the year of exercise, and an ordinary income tax event, if you sell stock in the calendar year after the year of exercise but before you meet the qualifying holding periods.

If you find at the end of the current calendar year that you are subject to the AMT, and you’ve decided to continue holding the stock purchased through the exercise of an ISO, make sure you have enough money set aside (in particular, to pay your tax bill or meet other short-term obligations) without having to sell the stock as a disqualifying disposition.

Other strategies: You should also look for other ways to reduce your tax burden under the AMT and regular tax system. For instance, you can invest in tax-free municipal bonds (but avoiding industrial revenue bonds), rather than in taxable bonds, or you can enroll in your employer’s pretax medical-deduction plan to help reduce your salary.

Don’t delay

Meet with your tax professional and financial advisor to assess your level of AMT risk and find ways to avoid it or reduce the impact. Make an appointment for a year-end tax-planning meeting in November or early December. By then, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what your income, itemized deductions and exposure to preference items will look like for the year and what more you can do before the tax year ends.

Geoffrey M. Zimmerman, CFP, is a senior advisor and chief compliance officer with Mosaic Financial Partners.

4 Things Retailers Don’t Want You to Know About Black Friday

Like the arrival of Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve, each year retailers deliver a host of deals, discounts and freebies for shoppers as part of a highly anticipated shopping event called Black Friday, which falls on the day after Thanksgiving.

Many of the deals are legitimate bargains, but others are nothing more than ordinary sales wrapped in shiny packaging. How can you tell the difference? We have the secrets you need to know about the annual discount shopping bonanza, which this year is Nov. 25.

1. Doorbusters are few and far between

Doorbusters are the blockbusters of Black Friday. They’re deeply discounted products that are available for only a limited window of time — usually on Thanksgiving Day or Black Friday. The products look good, and the prices certainly sound good, but the reality of actually getting your hands on one of these items isn’t so rosy.

In 2015, for instance, Sears plastered a Kenmore Elite washer and dryer on the front page of its Black Friday ad, with the promise of 51% off on the pair. But the fine print below the deal revealed that there were approximately only four available per store.

The story is similar at other retailers. If you don’t secure a spot at the front of the line or log online the moment a sale starts, you could miss your shot at these big deals. Shoppers should look for stores with doorbuster guarantees. In some cases, as long as you arrive at a certain time, you can be guaranteed the low price.

» MORE: When is Black Friday 2016 (really)?

2. Discounts are often inflated

Deals can be difficult to grab, but they can also be misleading. Last year, a NerdWallet study found that major department stores inflated the amount of some of their Black Friday discounts to make deals appear better than they actually were.

For instance, depending on where you shopped, the same-priced coffee maker could have looked like a better bargain. The Keurig K45 Elite Single-Serve Coffee or Tea Brewing System was on sale for $89.99 at Macy’s and Kohl’s during Black Friday 2015 and for $89.98 at Stage. But each of these retailers advertised a different regular retail price: $174.99 for Macy’s, $149.99 for Kohl’s and $119.98 for Stage. If you shopped at Macy’s, it looked like you were saving $85, but at Kohl’s, it appeared you were saving only $60 — despite the fact that the product was on sale for the identical price.

If you shop this year on Black Friday, don’t pay attention to the supposed percentage of the discounts. Instead, judge the value of a product based on the sale price and how it compares with the item’s price at other stores.

3. Price matching may be exempt

Price matching is a common practice that allows customers to show retailers proof of a lower price elsewhere on an identical product and ask the store to match that competitor’s price.

But many retailers suspend their price-matching policies on Black Friday. At Target, “Price matching and adjustments will not be allowed for prices from Thanksgiving Day through the end of the following week, whether offered by Target or a competitor. Exclusion dates are November 24 through December 3.”

Similarly, Wal-Mart’s policy reads, “ will not price match items on or to other retailers between Thanksgiving and Cyber-Monday,” which this year is Nov. 28. On Black Friday 2015, Wal-Mart stores would match the price of any local competitor’s ad for an identical product, but some exclusions applied.

When price matching is largely off the table, it’s up to the shopper to compare prices and research which store has the best offer.

» MORE: Black Friday 2016 ad leaks

4. Fine print is everywhere

Finally, even if you manage to avoid all of the above tricks and traps, you could still be faced with more fine print. Retailers have a way of making some sales difficult to actually claim.

Certain deals may require completion of a mail-in rebate. Other products are available at their advertised sale price only for a few hours and then go up in price. Keep an eye out for such fine print and exclusions — usually located at the bottom of a Black Friday ad or beneath individual deals within the ad — so you aren’t surprised when you get to the store on Black Friday.

Courtney Jespersen is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: Twitter: @courtneynerd.

Shopping Dealfinder Newsletter Get the best deals on Black Friday and beyond!                        

The Best Ways to Build Credit Now

Once, building credit meant taking on debt — sometimes expensive debt like a car loan or a credit card with a high rate.

Today, it’s possible to build a good credit score in a year without a big chunk of cash upfront or a large debt at the end. You can make yourself look better to lenders while keeping more money in your pocket. Here’s how to do it right.

You don’t need debt to build credit
  • Old advice: Take whatever credit you can get, even at double-digit interest rates.
  • New advice: Start with a credit builder loan, then add a credit card to the mix.

With a credit-builder loan, you build credit and savings at the same time. The money you borrow is placed in a certificate of deposit or savings account that you can claim once you’ve made all the payments, which are reported to credit bureaus.

Many credit unions offer these loans. If yours doesn’t, check to see if there’s a community development financial institution near you that does, or investigate Self Lender, an online lender that makes one-year credit-builder loans of $550, $1,100 and $2,200. Someone who borrows $550, for example, would claim a $550 CD after making 12 payments of $48.50, plus a $12 administration fee.

These loans can help people build credit scores in the high 600s or even low 700s, says credit expert Barry Paperno, who blogs at Speaking of Credit.

“Regardless of the loan amount, one year of on-time-payment installment loan history with no other credit on the report should deliver a decent score,” says Paperno, who previously worked for credit scoring company FICO and credit bureau Experian.

Once your scores are in the mid-600s, you can qualify for a regular credit card. Using the card for a few small purchases each month and paying the balance in full will continue to build your scores.

You can get plastic even earlier if you have some cash to make a deposit on a secured card. Most require people to put down $200 to $2,000 in exchange for a credit limit equal to that deposit.

“Adding a secured credit card with even the smallest limit and obtained at about the same time as the installment loan would make for an even better score,” Paperno says.

Store cards may improve your mortgage chances
  • Old advice: Regular credit cards are better than store cards for building credit.
  • New advice: Certain store cards may help you get a mortgage.

Store-branded cards have long been seen as a stepping stone to “real” credit cards. Store cards typically are easier for people who are building credit to get, but regular or general-purpose cards issued by national banks are weighed more favorably by credit-scoring formulas.

However, if you’re building or rebuilding credit with the goal of getting a mortgage, store cards may prove more helpful.

Mortgage buyer Fannie Mae now requires mortgage lenders to look more favorably on people who regularly pay off their credit card balances when that information, known as trended or time series data, is available. Research by Fannie Mae and credit bureau TransUnion has found that people who don’t carry balances are less likely to default on any credit account than those who do.

The problem is that many big credit card issuers don’t report to the credit bureaus how much of their accounts customers pay off each month.

“The percentage of issuers who are reporting this time series data is small, relative to the whole population of issuers that report to the [credit bureaus],” says credit expert John Ulzheimer, who has worked for FICO and Experian.

Some store-branded cards do report actual amounts paid each month, however, including Synchrony Bank’s Amazon card and TD Bank’s Target card. If getting a mortgage is important to you, call the issuer and ask if it will report your actual payment amounts to the credit bureaus before you apply.

Use free credit scores as much as possible
  • Old advice: Monitor your FICO scores to track your progress.
  • New advice: Keep tabs with free scores and buy the right FICO before you apply for loans.

FICO credit scores are used in far more lending decisions than rival VantageScores, but VantageScores have an edge for people new to credit.

FICO formulas require at least six months of credit history before a score can be generated, and at least one account must have been updated by the issuer in the previous six months. A VantageScore can be calculated as soon as a person’s first account is reported to the credit bureaus, typically within 30 days of approval. VantageScores also can be calculated for anyone with a credit account that’s been updated in the prior two years.

You can get VantageScores for free from sites like NerdWallet. Many credit card issuers also offer free FICOs or VantageScores. The version of the FICO that they typically offer is the FICO 8, the most commonly used score in lending decisions. It’s not the FICO that most mortgage lenders use, however — they typically use older versions of the scores pulled from each of the three credit bureaus:

  • The score retrieved from Equifax credit bureau is typically called FICO Score 5 or Beacon 5.
  • At Experian, it’s FICO Score 2 or Experian/Fair Isaac Risk Model V2SM.
  • At TransUnion, it’s FICO Score 4 or FICO Risk Score, Classic 04.

Similarly, auto lenders use various versions of FICO Auto Scores, which have a 250-to-900 scale. FICO Auto Score 8 is commonly pulled from all three credit bureaus, while version 2 is popular at Experian, version 5 at Equifax and version 4 at TransUnion.

When you’re ready to apply for a major loan such as a mortgage or auto loan, you can get a better idea of how lenders are likely to view you by purchasing your scores from Currently you can’t buy just an auto or mortgage score; you need to purchase your FICO 8s from each bureau for about $20 each, and the other scores come with the package.

Until then, go for a free score.

Liz Weston is a certified financial planner and columnist at NerdWallet, a personal finance website, and author of “Your Credit Score.” Email: Twitter: @lizweston.

This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by The Associated Press.

Mortgage Rates Today, Thursday, Oct. 20: Down Slightly; New Housing Permits on the Rise

Thirty-year fixed, 15-year fixed and 5/1 ARM loan rates saw subtle decreases across the board on Thursday, according to a NerdWallet survey of mortgage rates published by national lenders this morning.

“The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage moved a solid five basis points [0.05%] to 3.52% while the 10-year Treasury yield remained relatively flat,” Sean Becketti, chief economist for Freddie Mac, said in a news release regarding this week’s average rates. “This is the first week in over four months that rates have risen above 3.50%. This month, mortgage rates seem to be catching up to Treasury yields and returning to pre-Brexit levels.”

Mortgage Rates Today, Thursday, Oct. 20 (Change from 10/19) 30-year fixed: 3.70% APR (-0.03) 15-year fixed: 3.10% APR (-0.02) 5/1 ARM: 3.59% APR (-0.01) September new construction report hints at possible growth

In a news release on Wednesday, Jonathan Smoke, chief economist of, said that a September decrease in housing starts — when construction on a new home begins — isn’t necessarily cause to worry. An increase in permits last month indicates growth in the near future.

“The seasonally adjusted rate of permitting in September was up 6 percent over the rate in August,” Smoke said. “That blew through analysts’ expectations of a 2 percent increase. Unlike with starts, that monthly change was statistically significant.” The seasonally adjusted rate of starts was down 12 percent compared to August.

Smoke said that last month’s seasonally adjusted rate of permits was the highest for a September since 2007.

“What we are seeing now in starts is the result of a troubling negative trend in permits that started last December and has been especially significant in multifamily. September was the first month this year where we’ve seen a positive increase in the pace of multifamily permits.”

If new construction increases in the coming months, that would mean higher inventories in homes for sale and units for rent, which can lower home costs and rental prices.

Homeowners looking to lower their mortgage rate can shop for refinance lenders here.

NerdWallet daily mortgage rates are an average of the published APR with the lowest points for each loan term offered by a sampling of major national lenders. Annual percentage rate quotes reflect an interest rate plus points, fees and other expenses, providing the most accurate view of the costs a borrower might pay.

Michael Burge is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email:

Why Your Bank May Not Be Giving You the Best Mortgage Rate

Mortgage rates are near all-time lows, and it might be hard to imagine them going even lower. But some loan experts say many banks aren’t giving borrowers the lowest rates they deserve.

It’s a matter of how banks price mortgage loans: a complicated mix of making loans that are attractive to potential investors — often government-backed buyers like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac  — protecting profit margins for higher interest rates to come, and balancing loan demand with available staff. By managing these variables, lenders can have more money to make loans, while remaining profitable and competitive.

Of all the factors that affect your home loan interest rate, most are out of your control — but there are two you can influence to tilt the best-rate odds in your favor.

Investors drive pricing

“Mortgage rates are not so much dictated by the banks as they are by the investors that purchase these loans,” says Anthony Davenport, a former mortgage originator, now a credit management adviser and founder of Regal Financial in New York. And Davenport says 90 percent of mortgage loans are currently bought on the secondary market by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac or the Federal Housing Administration.

Lenders want to sell their loans to free up more capital to lend and remove the risk that borrowers may default from their books, so they price their mortgages with the rates and terms at which these quasi-government investors will buy them.

Pricing loans now for rising rates later

The mortgage industry has become so competitive that there’s little room, or desire by lenders, to pad interest rates, says Eric Smith, another former mortgage originator and banking executive, now a financial literacy coach in Atlanta. The only exception, Smith says, might be for large mortgages that lenders often keep on their books.

These mortgages, typically $417,000 or over in most areas of the country, known as ‘jumbo loans’ in the industry, exceed size limits set by Fannie and Freddie. Because of that, they aren’t purchased by those government-sponsored entities, so lenders usually hold onto these loans, as well as the relationship with the affluent clients who take them out.

Holding a portfolio of jumbo loans, and concerned that interest rates will rise, lenders might be “inflating that [mortgage] price a little bit to hedge against when short-term rates do start to come up.” That helps to protect their profit margin on low-interest rate loans, Smith says.

Davenport adds that, for jumbo loans held by banks, “they are in many cases borrowing money from places like the Federal Reserve at 0.25-0.50 percent and not passing along the savings to customers.”

Shmuel Shayowitz, president of Approved Funding in River Edge, New Jersey says there are two other instances when banks may hedge rates a bit. Sometimes lenders are waiting to be sure that a lower rate will stick and not rebound immediately, he says. That would leave the bank with a rate locked for a customer that’s lower than a now-prevailing rate.

Other times it may be an effort to manage mortgage demand in order to clear a backlog of loans without adding manpower to handle additional volume, Shayowitz says.

Two ways to get a rate break

While there is little — make that nothing — you can do about bank profit margins or how Fannie and Freddie shape lender pricing, Davenport says there are other cases in which a borrower may not be getting the best rate he or she can get, and sometimes a tactical move or two can make the difference.

First, mortgage rates vary according to a borrower’s FICO score, and, he says, that’s where interest rate adjustments are very real.

“Someone who has a 740 score isn’t really likely to default any more than someone who has a 760 score, but they’re going to pay a higher interest rate,” Davenport says.

Knowing where price breaks fall on the FICO score scale can help a borrower earn a significant discount. For example, if a lender’s discount kicks in at a 700 credit score and yours is 680, you might decide to reduce a credit card balance or two enough to bump your score up to the next level.

Secondly, Smith says consumers looking to get the best interest rate on a mortgage should shop more than one lender and — since lenders are likely to quote a rate with varying discount points built in — “get a rate based on zero discount points.”

Hal Bundrick is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: Twitter: @halmbundrick

This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by The Associated Press.

10 Ways to Keep Your Mobile Devices (and the Data on Them) More Secure

Mobile devices pose heightened security risks. Those risks come in several forms.

  • Devices -- including business data saved on them such as call records, contacts, images, videos,...
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