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Ask Brianna: Is Financial Therapy Right for Me?

“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

This week’s question: “You’ve mentioned ‘financial therapy’ in past columns. What is it, and how do I know if it’s right for me?”

When you’re ready for professional money help, a smorgasbord of options will appear before you: financial planning; credit counseling; money coaching; burdening your nightstand with a teetering pile of self-help books.

Financial therapy is one of the newest additions to the field, emerging from a small forum for mental health and financial planning professionals in 2008. While certified financial planners help you develop and implement concrete financial strategies, and mental health professionals help you recognize and change thought patterns that aren’t serving you, financial therapists straddle both worlds. They focus on your relationship with money and how it affects your behavior so you can realize your financial goals.

“Money comes with a lot of emotional baggage, and there just aren’t many places to talk about it openly and constructively,” says Dr. Mary Gresham, a financial psychologist in Atlanta.

If you struggle with saving, budgeting, paying off debt, severe frugality or other money issues, financial therapy could help. Here’s how to assess whether it makes sense for you, and how to evaluate any professionals you may work with.

When to go to a financial therapist

Financial therapy can help you understand why you’re stuck in the same patterns, such as overspending, even if you’ve tried to change. It also can help you explore the feelings that bubble up when you think about money. Gresham and Derek Lawson, a doctoral student in personal financial planning with a focus on financial therapy at Kansas State University, say financial therapy might be the right call if:

  • Your finances make you feel depressed or anxious
  • You’re consistently spending more than you earn or aren’t saving any money
  • You’ve tried to change those behaviors, with no luck
  • You want to understand the root of your money troubles

In some cases, other experts could better suit you. Try traditional financial planning if you want straight money advice you’re fairly certain you can implement on your own. If you’re dealing with a mountain of debt and urgently need an action plan, try credit counseling. Gresham says she refers her clients to these financial pros when necessary.

What financial therapy looks like

At your first few sessions, a financial therapist might ask you, “What are your best hopes for your financial future?” and “How would you know if these hopes were realized?”

“I might have a couple of meetings with clients before I analyze their financials,” says Lawson, who is also a financial planner at Priority Financial Partners in Durango, Colorado.

Lawson says he’ll ask clients who have trouble saving to focus on a time in the past when they did save and how they felt. That positive emotional memory may encourage clients to integrate saving into their lives more frequently.

How to find a financial therapist

Because there are few formal places to study financial therapy, practitioners today typically have either a mental health background and an understanding of financial issues, or a financial planning background and further training in mental health counseling. (Kansas State University and the University of Georgia offer financial therapy studies, and the Financial Therapy Association plans to develop a certification in three to five years, says president-elect Sarah Asebedo, who is also assistant professor of personal financial planning at Texas Tech University.)

You can use the Financial Therapy Association’s member directory or do a general online search to find financial therapists or financial psychologists near you. The XY Planning Network lists financial planners who work with clients in their 20s and 30s. It’s best to work with fee-only financial planners, who charge flat or hourly fees and won’t earn commissions on insurance or investment products, like mutual funds, that they might recommend you buy. This type of planner may be more affordable than one who charges based on a percentage of your assets he or she is managing.

Check each professional’s background and training: Ideally, they’ll have both the certified financial planner designation and licensure as a mental health counselor, marriage and family therapist, social worker or psychologist.

Brianna McGurran is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: Twitter: @briannamcscribe.

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

$110 Million Wells Fargo Payout Could Put Money in Your Pocket

If Wells Fargo charged you fees for accounts you never authorized, you’re set to get your money back.

Wells Fargo agreed Tuesday to a $110 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit brought after bank employees opened accounts without customers’ consent. The settlement would include repayment of fees as well as “millions of dollars of additional monetary relief,” according to a lawyer in the case.

Keller Rohrback, the law firm representing Wells Fargo customers, filed the suit in federal court in San Francisco last May. The court still has to approve the agreement, which Wells Fargo expects would encompass 11 other class-action lawsuits brought against the national bank.

The latest settlement is in addition to $185 million in penalties paid by the bank to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and other government agencies.

Who gets money

The $110 million, after legal and administrative costs, would go directly to customers to reimburse “out-of-pocket losses, such as fees incurred due to unauthorized account openings,” according to Wells Fargo’s news release. Jim Seitz, a spokesman at the bank, confirmed that the settlement would cover more than out-of-pocket losses but said he couldn’t elaborate.

This includes anyone who’s had a Wells Fargo account opened without his or her consent from Jan. 1, 2009, to the date that the settlement gets signed by both the court and Wells Fargo.

If that means you, you don’t have to take action yet. Attorneys for Wells Fargo customers will seek preliminary approval of the settlement next month from a federal judge, and then information will be sent to affected customers about benefits of the settlement. Wells Fargo would also release information, including how to submit a claim.

“The $110 million settlement, if approved, will require Wells Fargo to repay the fees charged to class members by Wells Fargo for unauthorized accounts and provide millions of dollars of additional monetary relief to the class,” attorney Derek Loeser said in a statement. Loeser, a partner at the law firm Keller Rohrback, helped negotiate the deal.

Tim Sloan, Wells Fargo’s president and CEO, said in a statement, “We want to ensure that each customer impacted by our sales practices issue has every opportunity for remediation, and this agreement presents an additional option.”

Over $3 million to customers so far

Since September, Wells Fargo has refunded $3.26 million to customers for fees charged from unauthorized bank accounts and lines of credit, according to Seitz. This is part of the $5 million set aside for customers in the $185 million settlement with government agencies. The refunds have gone to about 130,000 accounts.

The average refund from the bank’s December review of bank accounts and credit cards as far back as May 2011 is $32.41 per customer.

The exact number of people who could receive money under this new settlement couldn’t be confirmed. “We’ve entered into an agreement in principle,” Seitz says. “It would be premature to speculate on the size of the class.”

Wells Fargo’s previous settlement

The $185 million in penalties that Wells Fargo agreed to pay last September to government agencies, including the CFPB, was in response to bank employees opening around 1.5 million bank accounts and roughly half a million credit card accounts for customers without their consent.

The CFPB’s investigation looked at accounts from 2011 to 2015. The bank did not admit any wrongdoing as part of the September settlement.

Wells Fargo also plans to review accounts from 2009 to 2010 that might have been affected.

Spencer Tierney is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: Twitter: @SpencerNerd.

Better Check Your Balance: Crooks Targeting ATMs

Consumers have a new reason to check their bank accounts for fraudulent charges. On Wednesday, FICO reported the number of debit cards compromised at ATMs and merchant devices in this country rose 70% in 2016 over the previous year. And compromised cards can lead to money being drained from your account.

The number of hacked ATMs and merchant card readers also rose, by 30%, over 2015, according to the analytics and credit scoring company. Criminals often attach skimming devices to such machines to read card numbers, says Michael Betron, senior director of product management at FICO. Then the fraudsters attempt to make illegal copies of the cards.

In 2015, the agency recorded a 546% year-over-year leap in the number of hacked ATMs, particularly nonbank ATMs like those found at some convenience stores. The San Jose, California, company analyzes card transactions in the United States and releases its fraud report each year.

Card companies have taken steps to reduce fraud, including issuing cards with EMV chip technology. The chips use Europay, MasterCard and Visa technology standards to create a unique code for each transaction, making the card practically impossible to copy.

But not every merchant has a card reader that can take advantage of the EMV chip. Some ATMs, gas pumps and many restaurants still use the magnetic stripe for purchases, Betron says. In fact, 60% of the compromised ATMs weren’t located in banks but in locations such as convenience stores and retailers.

Reasons for the increase in hacked machines and compromised debit cards are unclear, but some industry observers have theorized that the rise of EMV technology has caused hackers to focus more attention on vulnerable card readers such as some ATMs and gas pumps.

How to guard against hackers

Here are ways you can protect yourself:

Check the location. When using an ATM, select one that gets a lot of foot traffic or is in a brightly lighted area. Follow the same rule for debit card purchases. If you fill up your car, know that the pumps farthest from the store entrance may be more attractive to criminals.

Check the card reader.  Be on the lookout for anything odd about your ATM or point-of-sale machine. If your card doesn’t enter an ATM smoothly, for example, a fraudster could have a skimmer attached to the opening.  “You may want to look somewhere else to get cash,” Betron says.

Check your account. Review your checking account regularly for unauthorized transactions. If your card is compromised, you’ll have to act fast to avoid losing money. If you report a loss within two days, the most you could lose is $50, according to federal law. But you risk losing up to $500 from your account if you wait up to 60 days — or the entire amount in your account if you wait longer.

Check with your bank.  Ask your bank for a new card if you believe your card has been compromised, even if there’s not yet evidence of fraud. That way, your financial institution can take steps to secure the machine, Betron says. “You can help the bank protect you and their other customers, too.”

ATM fraud is an increasing problem. By taking steps to protect yourself, you can keep your card number and your money out of a criminal’s hands.

Margarette Burnette is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: Twitter: @margarette.

Mortgage Rates Wednesday, March 29: Bouncing Higher

Mortgage rates for 30- and 15-year fixed loans, as well as 5/1 ARMs, all bounced a bit higher today, according to a NerdWallet survey of current mortgage rates published by national lenders Wednesday morning.

Meanwhile, home loan applications barely budged last week, falling just 0.8% from the week before, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. However, as the home buying season begins, the real estate market seems to be off to a good start.

“As an early gauge of spring buying activity, purchase applications for the last four weeks were all higher than the corresponding week a year ago, up an average of 4.8% on a year-over-year basis,” Lynn Fisher, vice president of research and economics with the MBA, told CNBC.


(Change from 3/28) 30-year fixed: 4.33% APR (+0.06) 15-year fixed: 3.70% APR (+0.03) 5/1 ARM: 3.86% APR (+0.03)

Get personalized mortgage rates


» MORE: How much home can you afford?

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

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

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

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What to Buy (and Skip) in April

While April’s showers prep flowers for May, you can get ready for spring cleaning, taxes and more with sales.

Take advantage of this month’s discounts and avoid the duds with our list of the top things you should buy — and a few you should skip — in April.

Buy: Vacuums

If spring cleaning season has you convinced that your old vacuum isn’t getting the job done, now might be the time to buy a new one. You’ll find plenty of vacuum sales and home cleaning deals this month.

The discounts may not be as steep as they were on Black Friday, but you can still find deals from home-cleaning brands and third-party retailers. For example, Amazon’s Spring Event section includes deals on some of the site’s top vacuums, and Dyson is hosting a limited-time clearance sale with discounts of up to $150 through April 15.

Skip: Mattresses

April can be a great time for a fresh start, but don’t get rid of everything old just yet.

Major household purchases, such as mattresses and furniture, are best made during sales that occur around Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend. Last year, mattresses were discounted by hundreds of dollars during Memorial Day at outlets including Mattress Firm and Sleep Train Mattress Centers.

This year, Memorial Day is May 29, but deals will likely start the week before and run throughout the three-day weekend.

» MORE: What to buy every month of the year in 2017

Buy: Jewelry

In general, jewelry stores are more motivated to have sales during non-gift-giving months. And since there aren’t any jewelry-centric holidays — such as Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day — in April, now is a good time to find discounts. Whenever possible, try to negotiate jewelry prices.

Skip: Bedding and linens

If you’re in the market for fresh bedding, linens or towels, you’re a few months too late. Stores offer the best discounts on bedding each January during “white sales.”

Look ahead toward deals at Memorial Day and Labor Day sales at department stores, including Macy’s and J.C. Penney.

Buy: Easter leftovers

Easter falls on April 16, so the second half of the month will be an ideal time to stock up on holiday leftovers, such as candy and decorations. Look for closeout sales at drug stores and department chains as retailers clear inventory to make room for Mother’s Day displays.

It’s not uncommon to find deals of 50% off or more, so you can stock up on baskets and plush bunnies for next year.

Skip: Summer essentials

Long months of winter blues could have you itching to skip spring and head straight to summer, but there are better times to stock up on swimsuits and beach hats. Prices for seasonal items tend to be highest at the beginning of the season and lowest at the end.

Try to hold out a few more months before replacing those old flip-flops. You can expect midseason sales after demand has cooled.

Bonus: Tax Day goodies

This year, Tax Day is April 18. To brighten up this sometimes dreaded day, look for Tax Day deals from retailers, restaurants and others.

Last year, Sonic offered half-off cheeseburgers, and Staples shredded 5 pounds of your paper for free. Expect to find plenty of discounts and giveaways again this year.

Bonus: April Fools’ Day

April 1 may be a day for tricks and tall tales, but retailers don’t play when it comes to sales. If you want to buy something that’s not discounted in April, take advantage of a sitewide promo code to lower the price. Coupons will be plentiful on April Fools’ Day. Last year, stores like Kohl’s and Old Navy, among others, used the annual pranking day as an opportunity to dish out real deals.

More: Hear what to buy (and skip) in April

In an interview with WDUN radio station in Gainesville, Georgia, NerdWallet discussed the products that shoppers can save money on in April.

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

Updated March 29, 2017.

Victim of ‘Divorce Season’? Protect Your Finances

Like rainy weather and the NCAA championships, divorce is seasonal. That’s according to University of Washington researchers who reviewed 14 years of the state’s divorce filings and found consistent peaks in March and August. Other states show similar patterns.

Why this “March Madness” for marriage? Researchers say the aftermath of Christmas and summer holidays might play a role. “The consistent pattern in filings, the researchers believe, reflects the disillusionment unhappy spouses feel when the holidays don’t live up to expectations,” reads a university report on the study.

In addition to emotional stress, divorce can bring financial pain, particularly for people who’ve never made financial decisions alone. This can lead to distressing questions, ranging from the simple (“Which bank do we use again?”) to the complex (“How do we divide stock purchases we made as a couple?”). It’s important to tackle issues one at a time so you don’t become overwhelmed.  

If your marriage is poised to break up — or has recently — take these steps to address the split’s financial aspects.

Protect your credit score

Until the ink is dry on the divorce agreement, you must keep up payments on any shared debt and expenses, such as mortgage and credit card payments or electricity and Netflix bills. Remember, a history of on-time payments is an essential ingredient in a strong credit score. Missed payments will hurt both of your abilities to secure more credit as you set up separate households, so monitor your credit score closely during this period.

Take inventory of shared assets

You can’t know if you’re getting an equitable share of the assets if you don’t know what’s on the table. Experts recommend figuring this out by collecting five years’ worth of financial data, including tax returns and statements from your shared investments or retirement savings.

How assets divide depends on where you live. Residents of nine states — Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin — follow the laws of “community property,” in which partners split all marital property equally, such as real estate and retirement assets. Almost all other states require “equitable distribution,” a fair — but not necessarily equal — division of assets. Alaska, the sole exception, allows residents to “opt-in” for a community property split.

Understand the retirement savings impact

During a divorce proceeding, the court could provide a “qualified domestic relations order” that determines the division of retirement savings. This might have further financial ramifications. For example, if you receive a portion of your spouse’s 401(k), you might want to roll it into an individual retirement account to defer paying taxes on the cash.

If your spouse has a pension, the way he or she elects to take it — and the QDRO — could impact you down the road. A standard election means you’ll stop receiving a share when your ex dies; with a QDRO, you might be able to get a survivor’s pension, typically half of the benefits your ex-spouse received.   

Lastly, update the beneficiaries on your life insurance and retirement accounts. Many people elect their spouses, but you’ll likely wish to choose a new beneficiary after a divorce.

Divorce is tough, but the better you prepare your finances, the better both partners will weather the breakup.

Kevin Voigt is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: Twitter: @kevinvoigt.

Mixing Up These Student Loan Terms Could Cost You

If you have student debt, you don’t have to go looking for confusing jargon — it’s built right into the system. Take student loan refinance and student loan consolidation.

These terms are often used interchangeably, since both let you bundle several loans into one. But the similarities stop there. That’s because federal consolidation and refinancing, also called private consolidation, are two very different processes.

At NerdWallet, we try to keep things clear by using the word “consolidation” when we’re talking about federal consolidation. This is a process that simplifies federal loan payments and can help borrowers qualify for programs like income-driven repayment plans and public service loan forgiveness.

Refinancing, on the other hand, is a way to lower your interest rate and save money on the total cost of your loans. Mixing up the two — which many borrowers do — can have long-term financial consequences.

How to tell consolidation and refinancing apart

Here’s a basic breakdown of each move.

Federal consolidation
  • Loans eligible: Federal only
  • Completed through: The federal government
  • What it does: Combines all of your federal loans under a single servicer of your choice. Your new interest rate is the average of all the individual rates, rounded up to the nearest 0.125 percentage point.
  • When to use it: To simplify payments if you have multiple servicers or to qualify for specific federal repayment programs
  • Qualifying: Most federal loans are eligible. Generally, you can apply after you leave school or drop below half-time enrollment.
  • Drawbacks: Up to 20 extra years in interest payments due to an extended loan term
Refinancing, or private consolidation
  • Loans eligible: Federal and private
  • Completed through: A private lender
  • What it does: Swaps out your existing loans for a new one with terms based on your financial history
  • When to use it: To save money on the overall cost of the loan; reduce monthly payments
  • Qualifying: Most lenders look for a low debt-to-income ratio, a steady source of income and a credit score in the mid-600s or higher
  • Drawbacks: Loss of borrower protections on federal loans
The costs of mixing up refinance and consolidation

Accidentally refinancing instead of consolidating would mean losing the safety net provided by federal borrower protections, such as forgiveness and income-driven repayment. That means that you’d have only deferment or forbearance options if you ever have trouble making your payments. Those options will increase your long-term costs.

On the flip side, accidentally consolidating means you wouldn’t save money by getting a lower interest rate or shorter loan term, as you would if you refinanced. You’d actually get a slightly higher rate, and you may extend your loan term to up to 30 years, depending on how much you owe and what repayment plan you sign up for. That will increase your total cost of borrowing.

Let’s say you graduated in 2016 and maxed out federal loans all four years of college, leaving you with $27,000 in debt and an average interest rate of 4.4775%. Consolidating would add 10 years to your term and increase your rate to 4.5%, costing you an extra $7,400 of interest compared with staying on the standard repayment plan.

Getting through the application process unscathed

Take these three steps to ensure you get the right outcome for your situation:

Know what you want. If you want to save money on your loans by changing your loan terms, check out refinancing. If you want to simplify your federal loan payments under a single servicer, or if you have Federal Family Education Loans and want to qualify for programs available only for direct loans, federal consolidation is the right move.

Make sure you’re OK with potential drawbacks. Neither federal consolidation nor refinancing can be undone, and each carries its own risks. Consolidating may extend your loan term. And if you’re going for loan forgiveness, be sure to exclude direct loans from consolidation or you’ll lose all qualifying payments on those loans. That means it’ll take even longer to get forgiveness. Refinancing can be risky, too. If you opt for a variable interest rate, for example, you may see your payments increase as the financial market changes.

Go to the right source.

  • Federal consolidation: Apply directly through the federal government to ensure you’re getting the right results. Start by logging into the Federal Student Aid website with your FSA ID and select “Complete a Consolidation Loan Application and Promissory Note.”
  • Refinancing: Check that the lender offers terms based on your current financial factors, like income and credit score. If that’s not spelled out for you, talk with a customer service representative to get clarification. But it’s probably best to look elsewhere to avoid signing up for a service or product you don’t want.

Federal consolidation and refinancing aren’t right for every borrower. If you’re looking to tie your payments to your income and you have direct loans, for example, you’d only need to apply for income-driven repayment. If you can afford your payments and want to keep the security of your federal loans, staying on the standard plan would be your best option.

Regardless of which path you choose, remember that signing up for consolidation, refinance or any federal loan repayment plan is free to do on your own.

Devon Delfino is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: Twitter: @devondelfino.

The State of Women in Business

It’s Women’s History Month and the SBA has a variety of resources to help women start, grow and succeed in business. There are many benefits to business ownership for women. One of the main...

Clock Ticks Louder for Older Aspiring Entrepreneurs

In an alternate universe, Ron Sheble would retire in his mid-60s and move to Arizona to hike the desert with his wife, living off savings and stock options from his years in corporate finance.

But life works out in funny ways. Since 2013, the 59-year-old Lincolnshire, Illinois, resident has co-owned and operated Advanced Vehicle Technology Services, Inc., a company that converts fleet vehicles — think delivery trucks and police cars — to run on natural gas or propane.

Sheble and co-owner David Hagopian, both of whom were laid off from the same corporation, knew little about alternative fuels to begin with. But after kicking in their own savings to start up the business, toiling through a year and a half in the red and growing annual revenue to more than a half-million dollars, neither is ready to return to a desk job.

“We’re going to stick with it,” Sheble says. “The bleeding has stopped.”

Starting a business is difficult at any age, but entrepreneurs like Sheble and Hagopian, both north of 50 when they set out, have specific constraints to consider. Chief among them is time: Older entrepreneurs have fewer productive years ahead to make up for the lean times that virtually all new businesses experience as they gain footing.

People in their 50s also have different financial priorities than younger people. Their children are going to college and (yikes!) grad school; they generally have to spend more on health care; and they’re thinking harder about retirement.

“Really, the math has to work out for these people,” says Michele Markey, vice president of Kauffman FastTrac Inc. in Kansas City, Missouri, a nonprofit provider of entrepreneurial training.

In the first few years, new business owners can experiment and figure out whether they have what it takes to be an entrepreneur, says Eleanor Dillon, an Arizona State University assistant professor of economics and co-author of a study on self-employment dynamics published in February by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

If you’re an aspiring older entrepreneur, ask yourself these questions to decide if starting your own business is the right move:

  • How does a business fit with my other financial goals? You should have a focused objective for your business and project how it’ll fit with your other financial priorities, Markey says. For example, how long will it take you to break even on your initial investment? Until then, your business is costing you the returns you could have made putting your money in a retirement account or some other investment.
  • How am I going to pay for this? Along the same lines, you should determine if you intend to fund your business from your savings or seek outside funding, either equity investors or debt. It’s difficult to get financing to start a business from traditional banks, but there are a few options for startup funding in the alternative financing market.
  • Should I start a side gig? Having an income while you develop your business will relieve some pressure, and it doesn’t hurt to hold on to health insurance if your employer offers it. If you’re under 65, the eligibility age for Medicare, you can buy individual insurance, but you’ll likely pay more on your own versus with an employer plan, and you’ll get less generous benefits.
  • What’s my endgame? If you’re an older business owner, your commitment to the business shouldn’t be as open-ended as a younger person’s might be, Markey says. Do you want the business to just provide income, or do you want to leave something behind after you no longer can or want to run it? Your endgame matters because it will influence how you invest in the business and operate it.
  • How do I learn more? Sure, tons of books and websites are devoted to business, but nothing beats sharing ideas with like-minded people. A good place to start is your local Small Business Administration small business development center. Also talk with people who would be your target customers to get feedback on your product or service. “Getting out and moving around amongst people gives the idea life,” Markey says.

Sheble adds: “Know that it’s going to take time. Unfortunately it’s going to take years” to ramp up a business.

Still, he’s nowhere close to hanging it up — there are more mechanics to hire, more contracts to book. And his take-home this year is only about half what he made in his last corporate job.

Sheble expects to “be working a lot more years,” so Arizona will have to wait a bit, he says. In the meantime, he’s still building his resume, four decades into his working life. He’s also having fun.

“Most of the time,” Sheble quips. “Let’s use the 80/20 rule and call it 80% of the time.”

Andrew L. Wang is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: Twitter: @andrew_L_wang.

This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by USA Today.

Outsmart Debt Like a Mom

Being a mom is hard work; being in debt makes it even more difficult. And tackling that debt while juggling other family responsibilities can feel impossible. Where do you start? How long will it take? What do you tell the kids?

Plenty of moms have been in this position, each with her own journey toward debt relief, from getting a personal loan to selling the family home. We asked three mothers — and one new mom who’s a certified financial planner — to share what they know about paying down debt.

First, everyone has a different starting point

For some, like Cherie Lowe, a mom of two girls who runs the personal finance blog Queen of Free, a smaller change made a difference. She and her husband paid off almost $127,500 in debt over four years — starting with $100 a month.

“The first thing we did was adjusting my husband’s withholding,” Lowe says. “We didn’t get a tax refund, but it allowed us to have an extra hundred dollars that we weren’t already living on to help us pay off our debt.”

Big changes, however, can bring immediate relief. Laura Dobbins, who runs the personal finance blog My Shiny Nickels, didn’t imagine that her house would be the first thing to go. But selling her dream home — which had a $400,000 mortgage — and moving with her husband and four children into a smaller place was the first change she made. It reduced her overall debt by $30,000 in the first year. “We don’t regret it a single day at all,” Dobbins says.

Julie Mayfield, who writes the personal finance blog The Family CEO, was a stay-at-home mom with two kids when she decided to get her family’s finances in order. The first step she and her husband took toward paying off $47,000 was making debt payment her job.

“We approached it from a place of intention,” she says. “What do we want to spend money on, and what are we spending money on that isn’t important? That worked for me better than to just be penny-pinching all the time.”

The best lessons learned along the way

For Dobbins, the key is finding what motivates you. She gives herself small wins to head off burnout, by tackling debts from smallest balance to largest rather than according to interest rate. “If your largest-interest-rate debt is $25,000, you’re going to get three years in and be like, ‘What am I doing again?’”

Mayfield found ways to reassess over time.

“If you can refinance your mortgage or get rid of private mortgage insurance, or cars, or rent, the big stuff comes first,” Mayfield says. “After that, I think it’s helpful to focus on the consistent things, the things that come up every month — the cable bill or eating out — because that’s going to be where you get the most results from your efforts.”

Realize there will be unexpected expenses. “We were prepared for there to be uncontrollable variables as much as we could be,” says Kelli Grant, a personal finance reporter and certified financial planner who recently had her first child with her husband, a freelancer. But certain challenges still took them by surprise. “Our little guy grew super fast, so we were perpetually looking for larger clothes and larger shoes.”

If you’re an expectant mom who’s worried about getting in debt, Grant stresses planning for your newborn’s expenses. “Babies have hospital bills, too,” she says. “My son had his own bills from being there. Insurance counts him as a separate person with his own limits and deductibles.”

Kids can handle the truth

Dobbins enlisted her children’s support on the same philosophy that she and her husband held themselves to: “We can do anything for a year.”

Honesty and attitude are key, she says. “When we moved, they knew that that’s why they were moving, and they obviously were not thrilled,” Dobbins says. “We tried to be positive about it ourselves.”

And over time, being transparent with her children has served them well, Dobbins says. “The kids are super aware of money now,” she says. “They have this mentality about where money goes.”

Lowe started paying down her family’s debt in 2008, during the housing market crash — news that her eldest daughter heard about, too. “The headline was something like, ‘Trouble on Wall Street Means Trouble on Main Street,’” Lowe says. “We live on Main Street, so she was asking, ‘Why is there trouble?’”

Lowe and her husband decided that they had to be as honest with their kids as possible. “We told her, ‘We borrowed more than what we should have, we’re going to pay it all back, and that means we’re going to make some changes in the way we live our lives,’” she says. And she was sure to answer any questions her daughters asked about the family’s money situation.

Grant plans to let her son know how the family finances are handled. For now, she’s thinking of the future.

“College costs obviously are a big one,” she says. “My husband and I thought about that right upfront. I’m still paying off my own undergraduate student loans, so I’m juggling that with my other financial goals. But we made it a priority to put aside money every month for his college savings.”

Unconventional savings are optional

Lowe recommends holding off on more unusual penny-pinching strategies until you’ve done the essentials. For herself, once the groundwork was laid, she found creative ways to further cut costs.

“We didn’t have [cable] TV at all for a while. The only thing we had at all was a VCR and a DVD player. My husband built our own antenna out of a two-by-four and hangers,” Lowe says.

Some changes happened accidentally. “Our microwave quit working while we were trying to get out of debt and I decided to wait 30 days before buying one. And then we never replaced it,” Lowe says.

Mayfield doesn’t recommend outside-the-box saving strategies. “I didn’t sell my plasma,” she says. “We didn’t do anything that crazy.”

Grant found that her priorities changed in ways she didn’t anticipate. “Coffee was never something that I enjoyed before having a baby, but now that we’re routinely awake at 5 a.m., we put aside money for coffee shipments,” she says.

No matter what your financial situation, there’s a positive way forward. Check out this guide to paying off debt to find out where you can get started.

Veronica Ramirez is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: Twitter: @veraudrey.

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