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Ask Brianna: How Can I Fund a Wedding and Pay Student Debt?

“Ask Brianna” is a Q&A column 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 askbrianna@nerdwallet.com.

This week’s question: I’m 25 and I just got engaged. I want to pay off my student loans by the time I’m 30. How can I pay for my wedding with student debt hanging over me?

Congratulations on your engagement! First, luxuriate in the news before you freak out that your guest list can fill a 500-line spreadsheet. Fiddle with your engagement ring in disbelief, daydream about married life, celebrate with friends and family.

No doubt, visions of pricey perfection will soon bombard you from magazines, Instagram feeds and Pinterest boards. You’ll learn the average U.S. wedding cost $35,329 in 2016, according to The Knot’s Real Weddings Study.

But let go of everyone else’s expectations, starting now. Create a thoughtful, realistic budget and forget widely cited figures like The Knot’s; a few lavish celebrations drive up the average. A solid 44 percent of U.S. weddings in 2016 cost less than $10,000, according to The Wedding Report, a wedding research company.

Here’s how to plan nuptials that leave you smiling so much your face hurts, not grimacing at the specter of credit card debt.

Start with how much you can contribute

You and your fiance will be best prepared to start life together if you fortify your financial health before the wedding, says Anika Hedstrom, a certified financial planner at Vista Capital Partners in Portland, Oregon, who got married in July 2014. That means taking advantage of any 401(k) matches at work, creating an emergency fund, knowing each other’s credit scores and sticking to your student loan repayment plans. Once you’re on solid footing, the last thing you want to do is add wedding debt to your love story.

“You will end up being so thankful a couple years down the road that you didn’t go into debt over it,” Hedstrom says.

Decide how much you and your fiance can save per month for the wedding, including any honeymoon expenses, while keeping the rest of your financial picture intact. Maybe you’re getting married a year from now and can save $100 per month. Put yourself down for $1,200.

Next, talk to your folks

You’ll likely have a few sources of funds: The Knot says couples themselves covered 42 percent of wedding costs in 2016, the bride’s parents paid for 44 percent and the groom’s parents paid for 13 percent.

Not everyone will be able to, or want to, receive financial help from parents. But include your families in the budget conversation early. You’ll get a sense of what, if anything, they want to contribute and how much involvement they want in the planning process.

“It’s especially important, if getting money from family, to be clear about whether contributions are gifts or loans, and whether there are expectations associated with the money,” says Ariel Meadow Stallings, author of “Offbeat Bride: Creative Alternatives For Independent Brides” and publisher of offbeatbride.com.

For instance, if your parents help pay, they may want to invite their work colleagues. Make sure you’re OK with that, or come to an agreement on the number of people they invite.

Pick your priorities, and forget the rest

On a smaller budget, spend money on your three must-haves and consider completely eliminating things that don’t matter to you, like flowers, Stallings says. Look for creative ways to save: Enlist friends to make wedding gifts of their services, such as food prep or event planning, and collect RSVPs online instead of paying for postage for return envelopes. The keys are customizing savings strategies to your values and keeping perspective.

Take it from Ashlyn Whyte, 26, of Rancho Cucamonga, California. Her 150-person wedding cost $23,000 in 2013. But if she were to do it again, she says she’d make sure the event cost half that by inviting fewer people and using an iPhone playlist instead of a DJ.

“I do think it was a great day and it was beautiful and we love our pictures and have so many sweet memories,” she says. “But it was just a day.”

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

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

Retire Right: Plan to Do It Twice

There’s the retirement that looks like the commercials: biking, travel, enjoying the family.

And then there’s the one where you can’t get up the stairs anymore.

Most of us happily plan for the first, when our health is good and energy high. The second can be hard to contemplate, when health falters and medical crises can change lives in an instant.

Yet a focus on just the active part of retirement can shortchange your quality of life once you begin to decline, which is why financial advisors suggest you also look at how you’ll live in the later phase. Here’s what you should consider for that second stage.

Envision the future

Certified financial planner Dana Anspach of Scottsdale, Arizona, doesn’t want her clients to prematurely give up their homes or make other moves that may not suit them. One couple she advised, for example, moved into a continuing care community — one that includes independent living, assisted living and nursing home care — in their 80s and moved back out again a year later because they couldn’t entertain or decorate their apartment the way they wanted. (They used their refunded deposit to buy a condo and had enough money to pay for in-home care.)

Anspach also has heard horror stories of elders who stayed too long in unsafe conditions until health crises propelled them into the hospital — and left their families scrambling to deal with the costs, their care and what to do with the family home.

The key, planners say, is to start thinking and talking about how you want to cope when your health begins to fail.

“You have so many more options if you plan earlier and set up the trajectory of where you’re wanting to go,” says Danielle Howard, a CFP in Basalt, Colorado.

Howard starts with the somewhat easier decisions, such as whom the clients want to make medical and financial decisions should they become incapacitated. Then the discussion moves to the harder topics — imagining life when they can’t navigate stairs or drive or handle daily activities such as cooking, cleaning, dressing or bathing themselves.

Could they stay in their current home? Would it need to be modified? Who will provide their care, and how will they pay for it?

Anspach advises clients who don’t have long-term care insurance or family members willing to provide care to save their home equity for such expenses, rather than using it to boost their retirement income. (Home equity can be tapped with lines of credit or reverse mortgages or by selling the home.)

If parents do expect children to help, Anspach says, they need to make sure the kids are on board and that those kids’ lives are stable enough to provide care if the parents move closer.

“You don’t want to move across the country and have them get transferred somewhere else,” Anspach says.

Take caregivers’ needs into account

Parents also should consider how they can make things easier for their caregivers, says Ed Vargo, a CFP in Cleveland. Vargo encouraged his in-laws to move from a home that was 20 minutes away to one that was five minutes away.

“That 20 minutes can turn into an hour back and forth, and you may be going multiple times a day,” Vargo says.

His mother-in-law, Rose Forrester, understood those dynamics well. Before she retired three years ago, Forrester was a physical therapist who provided in-home care to older patients — and a caregiver to her mother, who also lived 20 minutes away. Eventually, Forrester and her husband, Dan, moved the elderly woman into their home, where she lived for three years until her death.

Then the couple began to talk about what they should do to make things easier for themselves and their kids in coming years. Neither wanted to leave their home of four decades, but both realized its stairs and layout would be tough to navigate someday.

“I could have stayed 10 more years, but in 10 years I knew I wasn’t going to have the energy to move,” Forrester says. The couple moved to a one-level, ranch-style home three years ago, when he was 68 and she was 66.

Vargo is now talking with his father about moving closer. The older man initially rejected the idea but after a few years of discussions has said he’s now considering it.

“There’s a tendency for people to tell other people what they should do. That doesn’t really work,” Vargo says. “Have a discussion, share your concerns, but be patient.”

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

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

What Is a Personal Check — and Is It Still Useful?

A personal check is a slip of paper that is linked to your checking account. On the check, you write an amount of money and the name of a recipient who will receive that money. The check is a promise that the money will be there when the recipient redeems it, whether hours, days or weeks later. Checks are like slow-motion debit cards, which is why they can seem out of date.

That doesn’t mean you should chuck your checkbook into the trash can. You might need to write a check occasionally, and doing so has its pros and cons.

Are personal checks useful?

They certainly can be, because some transactions still require checks. For instance, landlords may insist that tenants pay rent with checks, and some small businesses don’t accept credit or debit cards. If you prefer to stay disciplined with your spending, checks or cash can also be a better choice than plastic.

» MORE: How to write a check

Pros of personal checks

You avoid convenience fees. Some businesses, including many property managers, charge convenience fees for electronic payments. Payments via paper check are usually free.

They have old-school security. If your wallet or purse is lost or stolen, you can kiss your cash goodbye. But banks and merchants still require a signature on every check, and cashiers are typically required to check customers’ IDs to verify that signatures are legitimate.

It’s an offline option. According to the Pew Research Center, 13% of all U.S. adults don’t use the internet. Paying bills with a check is much easier for these consumers than paying in person with cash.

Cons of personal checks

Checks cost money. Paying with a check can help you avoid convenience fees, but you usually have to pay for your actual checks, and you’ll definitely have to shell out a few bucks each month for envelopes and stamps if you use checks to pay bills by mail. Try finding a checking account that offers a free first box of checks, which some of the best checking accounts do. Processing takes longer. Cash, credit, debit or smartphone transactions process fairly quickly. And you can check your accounts immediately after the purchase to know how much you have left to spend. But check payments aren’t posted to your account until the recipient cashes the check. If you forget to log a payment or miscalculate your remaining balance, you could overdraw your account.

Writing them is inefficient. Imagine you and a friend simultaneously enter separate checkout lines at the store. Hers is for customers paying with cash and yours is for those with checks. Chances are good your friend will be waiting in the car for awhile before you finish writing your check.

Checks can be convenient

If your checking account offers free checks, you might as well order a batch. And even if it doesn’t, it might be handy to have some available, but don’t overpay for them. That may mean ordering them from somewhere other than your bank or credit union.

Tony Armstrong is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: tony@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @tonystrongarm.

Updated March 23, 2017.

Cutting Through Credit Score Confusion After Experian Fine

Consumers have more access to their credit scores than ever, allowing them to make informed financial decisions. But these scores can be confusing because there’s no guarantee the score a consumer looks at is the same one a lender will use.

Experian today became the latest of the three major credit reporting agencies to be fined for misrepresenting the scores it offered to consumers.

Here’s what consumers need to know about the many credit scores out there, and when and how to use them.

Credit bureaus penalized

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau fined Experian $3 million, saying the credit bureau:

  • Led customers to believe its proprietary PLUS scores were the same ones used by lenders to make decisions, in violation of an agency regulation
  • Required customers to view ads for Experian before they could see their federally mandated free credit reports, violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act

TransUnion and Equifax, the other two major credit reporting agencies, were fined earlier this year for similar violations, and ordered to issue refunds to consumers as well. In a statement, Experian said it does not believe it violated the law.

What to know about credit scores and reports

Consumers have a right to a free copy of their credit reports — a roster of all credit-related activity — from each of the three major credit reporting agencies once every 12 months. They’re easiest to access through annualcreditreport.com.

Credit scores, on the other hand, are a number that estimates how likely a consumer is to repay borrowed money. They are calculated from information in credit reports. That’s why consumers should check their free reports periodically for errors that might affect their scores.

While consumers aren’t granted by law the right to see their credit scores, as they are for credit reports, free scores are available from dozens of sources. However, most free scores are proprietary, as Experian’s were, or they are from VantageScore, the main competitor to the older, better-known FICO score. About 90% of the scores used in credit decisions are FICO scores, FICO says.

How to use scores

Free scores are much less likely to be used in lending decisions, but they’re an easy way for consumers to monitor their finances and check progress as they work on improving credit health. Better credit means a better chance of getting loan or credit card approvals, and better interest rates.

VantageScore and FICO calculate scores on many of the same factors. If a consumer has a high score on one, he or she is likely to have a high score on the other. Here’s what builds good credit scores:

  • Pay bills on time, every time
  • Keep balances on credit cards well below credit limits (no more than 30%, and lower is better)
  • Apply for credit only when needed
  • Have more than one kind of credit (for example, credit cards and loans with defined payments)
  • Keep accounts open; the age of credit accounts can help boost a score

However, before a big financial decision, such as applying for a mortgage or a car loan, it makes sense to get the scores that will be used in the lending decision. That usually means FICO.

National Consumer Law Center staff attorney Chi Chi Wu says many consumers can now get a free FICO score through the FICO Open Access program from participating credit card companies, other lenders or nonprofit credit counselors: “While there is no one credit score, a FICO score from the Open Access program is actually a score that is probably being used by lenders.”

Bev O’Shea is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: boshea@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @BeverlyOShea.

Eat Out Without Biting Into Your Budget

If you’re on a budget, money-saving advice tends to prescribe bagged lunches and dinners at home. But you don’t have to resign to a world of soggy peanut butter and jelly just because you want to save money.

Here are some ways to eat out at your favorite restaurant for less.

Buy gift cards below face value

You’ll get more food for your buck when you buy restaurant gift cards at less than face value. Restaurant.com, for instance, is a website that sells certificates for a fraction of their worth. You may be able to score a $25 certificate to your favorite Chinese place for just $10 (minimum purchases could apply). Warehouse store Costco, too, sells bundles of gift cards for less than they’re worth.

Ask for a discount

You could be eligible for a cheaper meal simply based on who you are. Children, seniors, students and members of the military are some of the most common candidates for discounts. Research a restaurant’s discounts online or inquire before your server brings the bill. It doesn’t cost anything to ask.

Join the club

Pesky marketers aren’t the only ones who want your email address nowadays. Many restaurants have mailing lists that they use to distribute news and promotions to customers. Sign up to stay in-the-know. You’ll usually get a special offer just for making an account and another the month of your birthday. But if you find the emails are tempting you to eat out more, hit “unsubscribe.”

Make wise menu choices

When you eat at a sit-down joint, you’ll be expected to tip the server in addition to paying your tab, so keep that in mind when making menu selections and calculating your total payment. To offset the cost, look for more affordable dishes (try ones with fruits and veggies that are in season) or opt for a smaller portion size if it’s available.

As for drinks, water is usually free, whereas soft drinks and alcoholic beverages can quickly add up. If you prefer a glass of wine with your meal, call ahead and ask the restaurant about corkage fees. Even with this fee, it may be more affordable for you to bring your own bottle than to buy one there.

» MORE: 12 ways to save on groceries

Dine on national days

From National Ice Cream Day to National Chicken Wing Day, there’s a day of observance for just about any food you can name. Plan your meals around these offers to take advantage of free appetizers, entrees or desserts. Stay tuned to social media for promotional details.

Take a survey

Restaurants like to hear about your experience at their establishment, so if they ask you to complete a survey, take them up on the offer. You’ll sometimes be rewarded with freebies or coupons for doing so. Similarly, SurveyMini is a free app that unlocks discounts when you complete questionnaires about restaurants.

Leave room in your budget

If dinners out at your favorite diner are an important family tradition, you still might be able to make room for a handful of restaurant meals in your monthly budget — even if it isn’t a necessity, and even if you can’t get a deal. For easy ways to incorporate needs and wants into your spending plan, see our advice on how to budget for both.

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

Five Ways to Give Your Business A Strategic Refresh

Do any one of these five simple refresh ideas and you’ll help yourself manage your business goals, growth, and execution. Do all five and you have a perfect lean business plan. 

Refocus...

Mortgage Rates Thursday, March 23: Slight Drop; Existing-Home Sales Slow

Mortgage rates today for 30- and 15-year fixed loans and 5/1 ARMs all fell by one basis point, according to a NerdWallet survey of current mortgage rates published by national lenders on Thursday morning.

MORTGAGE RATES TODAY, THURSDAY, MARCH 23:

(Change from 3/22) 30-year fixed: 4.33% APR (-0.01) 15-year fixed: 3.67% APR (-0.01) 5/1 ARM: 3.87% APR (-0.01)

Get personalized mortgage rates

 

NAR: Existing-home sales falter in February

Existing-home sales slowed in February, tapping the brakes on the brisk pace of sales seen at the beginning of the year, according to the National Association of Realtors.

While existing-home sales dipped 3.7%, to a rate of 5.48 million in February from 5.69 million in January, the pace of sales is still 5.4% higher than February 2016, NAR reported.

» MORE: How much home can you afford?

Tight inventory and fewer affordable home choices helped drive down sales, Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, said in a news release.

“Newly listed properties are being snatched up quickly so far this year and leaving behind minimal choices for buyers trying to reach the market,” Yun said. “A growing share of homeowners in NAR’s first-quarter HOME survey said now is a good time to sell, but until an increase in listings actually occurs, home prices will continue to move hastily.”

In fact, the median price for existing homes rose in February to $228,400, an increase of 7.7% from $212,100 in February 2016. It’s the fastest price increase since January 2016 (8.1%), NAR reported.

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.

Deborah Kearns is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: dkearns@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @debbie_kearns.

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Use Your Tax Refund to Spring Clean Your Finances

As you throw open doors and cast out the dirt that’s collected in your home all winter, remember that spring is also an ideal time to spruce up your finances  — especially those areas that may benefit from tax refund cash.

Tax season is a natural time to think about your current and future financial state as you sift to find W-2s, property tax statements and capital gains or losses in your portfolio. Your refund can also help you make overdue financial repairs — think lingering bills or a lackluster emergency fund — or perhaps invest in a stock that you’ve had your eye on.

Here are some practical steps you can take to bring new order and tidiness to your finances this spring.

Pay off high-interest debt

Putting your refund check toward paying off credit card bills that you amassed over the holidays isn’t the most fun way to spend a windfall, but it is among the smartest. This is true even if your refund won’t eliminate all of your debt. The average American household had nearly $17,000 in credit card debt in 2016; meanwhile, the average tax refund last year was just shy of $3,000.

Suppose you have multiple credit card accounts. Which should you pay first? Mathematically, it makes the most sense to pay down the account with the highest annual percentage rate. But some research suggests that paying off smaller debts first — known as the “debt snowball” method — may provide a psychological boost that keeps your debt management efforts on track. Either way, you can’t go wrong by paying down high-interest debt.

Adjust your withholdings

It may feel strange to think this when you get a big check from the government, but there’s wisdom in considering making a move to not get a refund next year — and instead using the additional cash in each paycheck to seed your bank accounts and retirement savings.

Eliminating that $3,000 refund could put $250 a month in your savings account. Put that cash each paycheck toward a holiday spending account, for example, and you may eliminate the stress of paying off high-interest credit card debt this time next year. You can adjust your withholdings any time of year through a W-4 form. Ask your employer’s human resources department for more details. Remember, a refund indicates you’re overpaying your taxes every paycheck — and giving an interest-free loan to the federal government in the process.

Open a retirement savings account

If you’ve already paid down high-interest debt and reclaimed previously withheld money from your paychecks, the next move involves earning a little return for yourself. Consider plunking your refund into a traditional individual retirement account or a Roth IRA. Both allow you to contribute up to $5,500 a year — or $6,500 if you’re 50 or older — but have different tax implications.

Your contribution to a traditional IRA is tax-deductible, but the withdrawals in retirement are not. For a Roth IRA, the reverse is true: You pay taxes upfront on the contributions, but you won’t have to pay taxes on withdrawals in retirement. If you already have a traditional or Roth IRA, consider putting your refund check toward your annual contribution limit for the year. And if you haven’t rebalanced your portfolio in a while, it’s also a good time to make changes to your investments and make sure risk is spread among different asset classes.

Buy company stocks

If the abundance of recent news on stocks — a phenomenon driven in large part by the tumultuous Snapchat initial public offering — has you wondering how to buy stock, keep this in mind: Only 13.8% of American families own individual company stock, according to a 2014 Federal Reserve report. Although most IRAs and 401(k)s offer exposure to the stock market through index funds and exchange-traded funds — vehicles that comprise a selection of stocks and thereby reduce risks for investors — many retirement accounts don’t allow investors to purchase individual stocks.

If you want to start buying company shares, you can use your refund check to open a brokerage account. But remember: Many experts recommend having no more than 10% of your total portfolio in individual company stocks — and likely less if you’re anywhere near retirement age. Make investments in companies with an eye toward long-term growth, not short-term gains. Profits favor the patient investor.

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

You Won! Congratulations — Now Pay Your Taxes

 

March Madness is one of the biggest gambling events of the year. Americans bet $9.2 billion last year on the tournament through office pools, offshore sites and bookmakers, according to the American Gaming Association. But few people realize that if they get lucky, the IRS gets lucky too. That’s because many kinds of financial windfalls may be taxable.

Here’s a head-to-head look at how lucky winners — of the office brackets pool, but also winners of others sorts — can make tax season a slam dunk, according to the pros.

Matchup: Office brackets pool vs. the IRS

Winner: the IRS

If your bracket doesn’t bust and you end up winning your pool, be sure to think about your tax return while you’re counting your winnings and bragging about your prowess for picking Cinderellas, says Jeff Fosselman, a CPA and certified financial planner at Relative Value Partners in Northbrook, Illinois.

“You are, according to the letter of the law, obligated to report that as income,” he says.

>>MORE: Find the best tax software

Matchup: Overachievers vs. Uncle Sam

Winner: Overachievers

The dollar values of small rewards from the boss, such as a turkey during the holidays or a free dinner for working late, are usually considered “de minimis”— Latin for, essentially, “concerning trifles” — and probably won’t show up on your W-2 as compensation, says Cynthia Kula, CPA, certified financial planner and director of tax at Walthall CPAs in Cleveland.

But be sure to ask about the tax consequences of those free cruises, weeklong trips or other big noncash awards the boss might dole out for beating performance goals, Fosselman says. They’re typically considered taxable at their fair market value.

“Generally, with those sorts of awards there’s no opportunity for withholding, so when you go to pay your taxes at the end of the year, your W-2 is going to have a lot more income and thus you’re going to be subject to a lot more tax and might not have enough withholding to cover that. You could have a substantial tax bill,” he says.

It’s OK to say “no thanks” if you’re not thrilled enough about an award to want to pay the extra taxes, Fosselman adds.

“Whether you enjoy it — even whether you go [on the trip] or not — if you have the award and you have the opportunity to go, you’re going to have to pay the tax bill on it,” he says.

>>MORE: Calculate your tax burden with our income tax calculator

Matchup: Lottery winners vs. the taxman

Winner: Lottery winners — if they play their cards right

If you’ve won the lottery, lock down the ticket before worrying about the tax bill, Fosselman says.

“You make the photocopy of it, you stick it in the safe deposit box, you lay low, hire the team of advisors and come up with a plan before you claim it. And hope you’re in one of the few states that allow you to collect it anonymously,” he says.

Deciding whether to take the lump sum or an annuity option is often a dilemma. For Kula, who says she once advised a group of employees who won a jackpot of around $23 million, lump sum is usually the way to go for tax purposes.

“There is planning to be done, and I think that overall it’s better to bite the bullet — pay [the taxes upfront] — instead of spreading it out so you’re paying that maximum in taxes forever,” she says.

But Fosselman warns: Depending on the size of the jackpot, the amount automatically withheld for taxes when you claim your winnings might end up being too low, which means winners could have a second tax bill coming. The annuity option could be better from a tax perspective, he says, if the payments are small enough to keep you in a lower tax bracket than you’d be in if you took the lump sum.

Tina Orem is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: torem@nerdwallet.com.

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

 

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