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How a Microloan Helped My Business Grow

Before a chance meeting in 2013 with Accion, a nonprofit microlender, Kris Schoenberger pulled in $20,000 to $30,000 annually through his mobile catering company, BBQ’d Productions. Catering was his side gig at the time.

A little more than a year later, Schoenberger’s business in Third Lake, Illinois, north of Chicago, had grown to include a full-service restaurant. His revenue from July 2014 to July 2015, the first year of business for the restaurant, soared to $2 million.

Schoenberger gives a lot of the credit to Accion, which lent him about $7,500 to help upgrade his catering operation from a grill in the back of his truck to a fully equipped catering trailer. He says an Accion loan officer helped him save nearly $6,000 on the trailer.

‘They also teach you’

“Not only do they give you the money,” Schoenberger says, “they also teach you how to make the most out of that money. I would not be where I’m at today if it weren’t for them. Any time I have a problem or question, I can always call them.”

This type of financial and business education is central to the mission of most nonprofit microlenders. Rather than lending money and leaving borrowers to fend for themselves, microlenders provide counseling and mentoring to help entrepreneurs succeed.

Nonprofit microfinance organizations also help people in underprivileged and underrepresented communities access the capital they need to start businesses, buy homes or build credit, often when they can’t get financing through a traditional bank.

In recent years, microlenders have become more visible as traditional lenders, such as banks, pulled back on small-business lending during and after the recession.

Microlending has been growing in the U.S., according to the latest information from the Aspen Institute, whose FIELD program collects data on microlenders across the country. Total microloans disbursed in the U.S. jumped to $209 million in 2014, up 47% from $142 million the previous year. The total number of microloans rose to 56,351, a gain of 49% from 37,927.

Germaine Seufert took out an $18,000 loan from Accion, after being declined by a bank, to buy a bus to help expand her organization’s summer camp. Seufert is the director of Consultants for Children, a Colorado company that provides in-home and small-group services for children with autism and other developmental disabilities.

Before approving the loan, Accion made a site visit, called business references and looked over the organization’s books. The whole process took about four weeks, Seufert says.

When she went to Accion to refinance the loan to buy a second bus, the process went much more quickly.

‘They immediately approved’

“It took more time for me to pick out the vehicle,” she says. “But once we had the appraisal done, they immediately approved the loan.”

Founded in 1961, the global nonprofit Accion helps millions of people in more than 20 countries secure financing. Among those countries: the United States.

The organization offers microloans and general small-business loans in the U.S. in amounts ranging from $200 to $750,000. Accion offers loans to help businesses in specific industries — including child care, food and beverage, spa and salon — as well as those that are in the nonprofit sector or aiming to go green. Accion’s lending activity in the U.S. is committed to helping underserved entrepreneurs, including women, veterans, people with disabilities, Native Americans and other minority business owners.

Many nonprofit lenders are local, serving specific regions or communities. California-based Opportunity Fund is one. The microlender has been serving residents of the state since 1994, with more than $100 million in microloans.

Laura Hanson, a co-owner of Watershed Nursery in Point Richmond, California, was one of those people. In 2008, Hanson borrowed $10,000 from Opportunity Fund to expand the nursery, which she and her co-owner started in the backyard.

‘They were there to help’

“They were offering better rates. It felt more attractive and straightforward and helpful,” Hanson says. “We had a person who was on our account who was accessible and answered questions. I felt like they were there to help us.”

In addition to microloans to small businesses, Opportunity Fund also promotes microsavings. This program matches every dollar saved by low-income clients with $1 from Opportunity Fund and $1 from donors.

Opportunity Fund doesn’t simply give money, though. The organization provides basic financial literacy education to clients to help them learn to budget, save and spend wisely.

Kelsey Sheehy is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: Twitter: @KelseyLSheehy.

NerdWallet staff writer Benjamin Pimentel contributed to this report.

How Prepare for a Trade Show and Justify Your Budget, PART 1

You’re back in the office after the show. You’ve thanked everyone, collected all the leads–and even collected more leads this year. The show was a success! As you prepare next year’s budget and...

Judge Approves $14.7 Billion Settlement in VW Diesel Scandal

A federal judge Tuesday gave final approval to Volkswagen’s $14.7 billion settlement of its emissions-cheating scandal, clearing the way for buyback payments to begin soon to nearly half a million diesel-car owners who were driving vehicles that don’t conform to U.S. pollution laws.

The written ruling also allows VW owners the option of keeping their cars and having them modified by the carmaker to meet air quality standards.

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer, who had heard objections to the proposed settlement in an Oct. 18 hearing, said Tuesday that the agreement “adequately and fairly compensates” owners, according to a copy of the final ruling. “Given the risks of prolonged litigation, the immediate settlement of this matter is far preferable,” Breyer wrote.

The final settlement in a San Francisco court brings to an end a year of waiting for as many as 475,000 owners of the 2.0-liter diesel models that were found to be rigged to pass government lab tests. In the ruling, Breyer also approved VW’s $1.2 billion settlement with about 650 U.S. dealerships.

The Environmental Protection Agency and other federal and state agencies sued VW, which has acknowledged fitting VW and Audi diesel vehicles from the 2009-15 model years with defeat-device software to pass smog tests. People who bought or leased the sporty cars — billed as  “clean diesel” vehicles — were offered a temporary deal, subject to public comment, after the scandal broke in September 2015.

The final settlement offers restitution amounts of $5,100 to $9,852 plus the value of the vehicle based on various factors including the year, make model and current mileage of the vehicle. For owners taking the buyback, the combined total could range anywhere from $12,475 to $44,175.

Under the settlement, Volkswagen (and “related entities”) will spend up to $10.03 billion to compensate owners of the affected vehicles and $4.7 billion to mitigate pollution from the cars and invest in green auto technology.

About 340,000 owners of affected cars have registered to take part in the settlement, according to Reuters, and now have to decide how to make the most of the agreement. About 3,500 owners have elected to opt out.

“Given the high claim rate and the low opt-out and objection rates, this factor strongly favors final approval,” Breyer wrote in his ruling.

September 2018 is the deadline for VW owners to accept the buyback offer or wait for the to-be-announced emissions system fix. Meanwhile, in addition to its tarnished reputation, VW may have further troubles: Emissions of other diesel engines it makes are still being investigated.

Philip Reed is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email:

A 3-Step Plan for New Grads With Student Debt

You’re a new grad, maybe in a new city with a new job, apartment and friends. But not all the new things about postgrad life are fun and sparkly; you likely have a new debt to deal with, too.

If you graduated in May, your first student loan payment will probably come due next month. And if you’re like a lot of recent graduates, you’re craving some structure amid all the newness. Follow this three-step plan to help you start chipping away at your student debt.

Step 1: Become an expert on your own loans

Start with the basics. You should be able to answer the following questions about your student loans to best know how to tackle them:

  • Who is your federal loan servicer?
  • How much do you owe total and what are your interest rates?
  • How much do you owe each month and when is your first payment due?

Find this information about your federal loans by logging into your Federal Student Aid account or checking with your loan servicer. If you have private loans, contact your lender.

Step 2: Budget for your monthly payments

A depressing reality of postgrad life is that you’ll need to make room in your budget for your student loan payments. Plan to pay the minimum amount due every month to keep your credit in good shape. Another tip: Set up autopay. In most cases, you’ll get a 0.25% interest rate discount for automating your payments.

It’s also a good time to figure out how your student loan payments will fit into your overall financial picture. Based on the 50/30/20 budgeting strategy, you should spend about 50% of your take-home earnings on needs, including your minimum student loan payments, rent and other necessary bills.

Step 3: Income too low? Adjust your payment plan

If your student loan payments eat up too much of your paycheck, switching to an income-driven repayment plan may be what you need. The plans base your minimum federal loan payment on your earnings and can lower your payments; depending on your income, you may not be required to pay anything. It sounds like a no-brainer, but keep in mind that they also increase the amount of interest you’ll pay in the long run.

If an income-driven plan makes sense for you, it’s free to sign up through the Department of Education. Apply on the Federal Student Aid website to get started.

Next steps

Once you get into the groove of making your monthly payments, check out ways to save money on your student loans:

  • Refinance your student loans to save money in interest. You’ll likely qualify if you have good credit and a high income compared to your other financial obligations.
  • Get federal loan forgiveness based on your employer or occupation. For instance, you’re eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness if you work for the government or a nonprofit.

Teddy Nykiel is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: Twitter: @teddynykiel.

How to Choose the Right Co-Working Space for You

Sure, working from home has its perks, be it a more flexible schedule or eliminating a long commute. But now, you miss chatting and networking with co-workers.

You may want to try a co-working space, which offers a shared working environment for remote workers, freelancers and budding small businesses. The benefits may surprise you.

However, not all co-working spaces are a good fit. Here are four factors to think about:

1. Location

The co-working space should be a reasonable distance from home, says Craig Baute, owner of Creative Density in Denver. The average commute in the U.S. to a co-working space is 18 minutes, according to online co-working magazine DeskMag.

For freelancers and remote workers on limited budgets, free parking is a must-have item, Baute says. Having lunch spots nearby is also important.

2. Amenities

Every co-working space should come with unlimited coffee, comfortable seating, a printer and fax machine, and fast, reliable internet.

You may need to take private calls, so it also helps if the co-working space offers a designated area for that. “Noise should not be an issue,” says Chris Schultz, CEO of Launch Pad, which has co-working spaces in New Orleans and in Charleston, South Carolina.

Some co-working spaces also offer educational workshops and special events, which can be an attractive perk.

3. Community

A strong community and interaction with others are the top reasons people choose a co-working space, according to DeskMag. You should be comfortable interacting with and learning from people in the space.

The biggest benefit of co-working spaces is that they’re “an investment in yourself and your career, in your business,” Schultz says, adding member surveys show that “their businesses grow faster and they move further in careers and more satisfaction doing what they’re doing.” A big reason for that is the community they’re around.

4. Price

Memberships are typically monthly, without long-term lease commitments, and price usually depends on the size of the space and how often you’ll be there. The average monthly price of a 24/7 co-working space membership is $305, according to DeskMag’s survey.

Co-working space checklist

Test out the co-working space before making a commitment. Here’s a to-do list to help you evaluate the co-working spaces you visit:

  • Sit. Test your desk or office chair. You’ll want to be comfortable working from this spot.
  • Sign on. Try the internet. It needs to be fast and reliable — better than at home. “We call the internet oxygen,” Schultz says. “You need super-fast Wi-Fi.”
  • Sip. The coffee is likely included in your membership. Is it something you’ll want to drink every day? You shouldn’t have to go to Starbucks.
  • Mingle. Attend a happy hour, workshop or event hosted by the co-working space; say hi. Do you feel like you’ll be able to make connections? Ask yourself whether the culture is a good fit.

“Introduce yourself to people, see if people introduce themselves to you,” Schultz says. “Test the internet, try the coffee, think about what you’re going to need and work off that checklist.”

Steve Nicastro is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: Twitter: @StevenNicastro.

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

Image credit: LaunchPad

Mortgage Rates Today, Tuesday, Oct. 25: Up Slightly; Aging Population Faces Challenges in Aging Homes

Thirty-year fixed, 15-year fixed and 5/1 ARM rates all increased slightly on Tuesday, according to a NerdWallet survey of mortgage rates published by national lenders this morning.

Mortgage Rates Today, Tuesday, Oct. 25 (Change from 10/24) 30-year fixed: 3.67% APR (+0.02) 15-year fixed: 3.09% APR (+0.01) 5/1 ARM: 3.61% APR (+0.01) Rural areas will see greatest increase in senior population

Within the next few decades, rural areas will see more growth in the 65-and-older population than urban areas, according to a report from the Urban Institute released last week. Many of the homes in rural areas are aging fast as well, and these aging homes may not be suitable for elderly homeowners.

The report suggests that urban population growth will outpace rural population growth, which could shift the focus on new and updated housing away from rural areas. The report calls for increased rehabilitation of aging homes in rural areas, and for increased training and capital for rehabilitation projects. Moving into smaller, newer homes may also be better for seniors. And expanding home equity programs to allow older homeowners who are still mobile to tap into home equity and update properties could be helpful.

“The number of aging homes that are good candidates for rehabilitation is expanding much faster than new households throughout rural America, making this rehabilitation need urgent,” the report said. “Many households can make the investments themselves, and installing energy-efficient systems can offer savings. And as demand grows for home retrofits, so will the experience of local contractors and the building industry more broadly, increasing innovation and decreasing cost.”

According to the 2016 Aging-in-Place Report released this month by HomeAdvisor, 61 percent of homeowners age 55 and older plan to remain in their homes indefinitely. This report also recommends that homeowners who want to age in place prepare to do so by making certain upgrades. But what’s needed is more education that explains what it means to not just age in place, but also to “thrive in place,” says the report.

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:

Avoid an Expensive Mistake: Validate Debt Before You Pay a Collector

Before you pay a dollar to a debt collector or even acknowledge that a debt is yours, call in the help of an old friend: snail mail.

Errors in debt collection are common. You don’t want to pay something you don’t owe or accidentally revive a so-called zombie debt, which is an old debt that might be past the statute of limitations. And you don’t want to fall victim to a debt collection scam.

You have two tools you can use to avoid making an expensive mistake:

  1. The debt validation letter the debt collector is required to send you, outlining the debt and your rights around disputing it.
  2. The debt verification letter you can request to get more information and temporarily halt collection efforts.
Review the debt validation letter

Collectors are required by Fair Debt Collection Practices Act to send you a written debt validation notice with information about the debt they’re trying to collect. It must be sent within five days of first contact.

The debt validation letter includes:

  • The amount owed.
  • The name of the creditor seeking payment.
  • A statement that the debt is assumed valid by the collector unless you dispute it within 30 days of first contact.
  • A statement that if you write to dispute the debt or request more information within 30 days, the debt collector will verify the debt by mail.
  • A statement that if you request information about the original creditor within 30 days, the collector must provide it.

If you don’t receive a validation notice within 10 days of first contact, request one from the debt collector the next time you’re contacted. Ask for the debt collector’s mailing address at this time as well, in case you decide to request a debt verification letter.

Need more? Request a debt verification letter

The validation letter might leave you with more questions than answers about why you owe the amount listed or whether you owe the debt at all.

In that case — or if you never received a validation notice — you can request a verification letter proving this debt is actually yours. Among the many things you can ask for information about, a debt verification letter can:

  • Help you determine if the debt is actually yours and how much you owe.
  • Provide clarity on the age of the debt, including whether it’s past the statute of limitations.
  • Give you details on who the original creditor is.

If you send the letter within 30 days of first contact, the debt collector must stop trying to collect payment until it verifies that the debt is yours. You can still send a verification letter after the 30-day mark, but the debt will be assumed valid and the collector can continue to seek payment while it responds to your letter.

It’s a violation of the collection practices act for a debt collector to refuse to send a validation notice or fail to respond to your verification letter. If you encounter such behavior, you may want to file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

How to request your letters

The CFPB has sample letters that you can use. The key is to be thorough in your request for debt verification.

In your letter, ask for details on:

  • Why the collector thinks you owe the debt: Ask who the original creditor is and request documentation that verifies you owe the debt, such as a copy of the original contract.
  • The amount and age of the debt: Ask for a copy of the last billing statement sent by the original creditor, the amount owed when the collector purchased the debt, the date of last payment and whether the debt is past the statute of limitations.
  • Authority to collect the debt: Ask whether this debt collection agency is licensed to collect debt in your state.

You may want to send this letter by certified mail and request return receipt so you can document the correspondence between you and the debt collector.

Be aware that although you can ask for many details, debt collectors are only required to provide information on the original creditor, the balanced owed and the name of the person who owes the debt before resuming collection efforts.

Getting even that amount of information, however, can help you determine if you actually owe this debt, if it’s past the statute of limitations, or if there’s an error such as overstatement of the amount owed.

Next steps

Once you have information on the debt, how you proceed depends on whether you actually owe it and whether you’re in a position to pay the debt if you do.

If the debt is yours, you have a few ways to pay off a debt in collections. If you can’t afford to pay it, you may want to look into debt relief.

If the debt is not yours, write a letter to the debt collection company disputing the debt. You should also check your free credit score to see if the erroneous debt is marked there. If so, you’ll want to dispute that with the credit agencies.

Sean Pyles is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: Twitter: @SeanLoranPyles.

Fundamentals of Lean Business Planning

Every business owner should be aware of lean business planning. It’s a perfect compromise between the old-fashioned formal business plan that is too big and static, and the kind of small steps and...

How to Choose a Medicare Advantage Plan

Open enrollment for Medicare is underway through Dec. 7, so if you’re in the program and want to switch plans, now’s the time to shop.

Each year, more and more people choose privately run Medicare Advantage plans that work like traditional health insurance, rather than original Medicare. Thirty-one percent of Medicare beneficiaries are on a Medicare Advantage plan as of 2016, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

If you’re happy with your Medicare, you don’t have to change anything, but knowing all your options can’t hurt. Here’s how to shop for a Medicare Advantage plan.

Find Medicare Advantage plans in your area

Go to the Medicare Plan Finder on This website will ask for your prescriptions, but Patricia Barry, AARP Media features editor and author of “Medicare for Dummies, 2nd Edition,” suggests you first do a search without inputting your drugs. (After answering the Plan Finder questions, choose not to enter your drugs now and continue on to the list of plans.)

“Entering the drugs first can distort the results,” Barry says. The website may identify the “best” plans as those “that provide a good deal on drugs, but charge more for doctors’ visits and hospital stays than other plans,” she explains.

Compare costs and benefits

Get cost information by clicking on each plan’s title, then on the “benefits” tab. Don’t look solely at premiums; look also at copays, coinsurance and the deductible. Often, a high deductible is the trade-off for a lower premium.

Pay special attention to how well each plan pays for services you use most — any plan that doesn’t cover your needs isn’t a good deal. If you need dental, hearing or vision benefits, look for plans with colored circles containing D, H or V.

HMO vs. PPO plans

Just like regular health insurance, Medicare Advantage plans are largely a mix of health maintenance organizations (HMOs) and preferred provider organizations (PPOs). Sixty-four percent of Medicare Advantage enrollees choose HMO plans, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, but you may prefer a different structure.

HMOs usually require you to select a primary doctor who coordinates your care. They also usually require a referral from that doctor if you want to see specialists. Often, HMOs pay nothing when you don’t use their doctors, except in an emergency.

A PPO will allow you to see any doctor you want, but you’ll pay less if you choose an in-network doctor.

“HMOs generally cost less but offer fewer providers to choose from,” says Kip Piper, a Medicare consultant and speaker in Washington, D.C. “Conversely, PPOs offer more choice but at a higher cost.”

An extra step to keep your doctors

Most doctors take original Medicare, but some do not take certain private plans like Medicare Advantage. If you like your doctors now, make sure they’re part of your plan’s network.

The easiest way to find out is to call the doctor’s office. The staff can tell you whether the doctor participates in the insurance plan you’re considering.

Now, make sure your drugs are covered

By now, your plan options should be narrowed to just a few. Write down the plan names and click on “Enter Information” under the big blue buttons on the Plan Finder. Do the search again, this time entering your drug names.

The new results will include only plans that cover your prescriptions. If one or more of the plans you chose before are listed, these are your finalists.

Shoot for the stars

Medicare shoppers have one advantage over the rest of us: The star rating system, which tells you the quality of each plan on a one- to five-star scale. The ratings, determined by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, are based on several measures, such as benefits, customer satisfaction and how well the plan manages chronic conditions, Barry says.

The ratings system is new and isn’t perfect, Piper says, because it favors plans with healthier members. “Plans that serve more complex, high-needs patients tend to receive lower star ratings even though their real performance is likely quite good,” he says.

Nonetheless, shoot for a star rating of 3.5 or better. After you’ve selected a plan, you’re done — your old insurer (or Medicare) will be notified automatically of the switch.

Lacie Glover is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: Twitter: @LacieWrites.

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

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