Which Kind of Credit Card Should You Have in Your Wallet?

Some credit card users rely on a single card, while others have dozens. Thankfully, its easy to find a middle ground where you have a few cards that meet their essential needs, but not so many as to be difficult to manage.

If you are striving to carry just the cards that you truly need, and are looking to avoid the bulk, cost and complexity of carrying unnecessary cards, then here’s how to make sure the cards you have are the right fit for you.

1. If You Travel Internationally

If you travel internationally, you will want to have a card that has no foreign transaction fees and EMV chip compatibility. Thankfully, most credit cards are now offered with EMV chips, as this standard is being widely adopted in the United States later this year. In addition, there’s an increasing number of cards that are being offered without foreign transaction fees, particularly those that are marketed to international travelers. Nevertheless, there are still many credit cards that charge a 3% fee on all purchases processed outside of the United States. Other features that can be important to international travelers include access to airport business lounges, a travel assistance hotline and robust travel insurance policies.

2. If You Travel Domestically

Frequent domestic travelers will want to have a card affiliated with the airline that they use the most. These airline cards will offer benefits like priority check-in and boarding, as well as free checked baggage. Other perks can include discounts on in-flight food, beverage, and entertainment. And as you look toward the more expensive cards, these can even offer access to business lounges as well as elite qualifying miles to help you reach the next level of status, and become eligible for first-class upgrades.

3. If You Have Debt

People who are struggling with credit card debt may want to look for a card with 0% APR promotional balance transfer offer. Currently, these offers extend for as long as 21 months, but by law they have to apply for a minimum of six months. Opening an account with one of these offers allows you to take a break from interest charges, and pay down your debt even sooner (this calculator can help you figure out how long it will take to pay off). Unlike other financing offers, 0% APR credit cards will not impose interest charges, even when you are unable to pay off your entire balance before the promotional financing period ends.

4. If You Pay Your Credit Cards in Full Every Month

Those who avoid interest charges by paying their entire statement balance in full each month should be leveraging their good habits to earn the most valuable rewards available including points, miles, or cash back. There are even competitive cash back reward credit cards with no annual fee, so you don’t have to make any tradeoffs.

5. If You Are Rebuilding Your Credit

If your credit is poor, then it can be challenging to qualify for a new account that will help you to rebuild it. The big exceptions are for secured cards, which accept nearly all applicants, but require you to submit a refundable deposit when you open an account. Once opened, these accounts work the same way as standard credit cards. You will have to make a minimum payment each month, and you will be charged interest if you carry a balance. Secured card issuers will also notify the major credit reporting agencies of your payment history, and as you make on-time payments over a period of time and improve your credit, that may allow you to receive your deposit back and upgrade to a non-secured card in as little as one year.

6. If You Are a Student

Students and other young adults have a limited credit history, and will need to use a credit card cautiously in order to create a record of on-time payments and increase their credit score. One of the easier ways to start is with a student credit card. These cards tend to have slightly less favorable terms than similar cards, such as higher interest rates, fewer promotional financing offers or a smaller sign-up bonus. But in exchange, these products offer students the chance to open an account in their own name and build their own credit history. Just remember that the CARD Act requires that applicants under 21 show their own ability to make the payments.

Before you begin your search for a credit card, it helps to know where you stand credit-wise so you can target your search to cards with requirements you’re more likely to meet. You can get your credit scores for free on Credit.com, along with a personalized plan with suggestions on how you can improve your credit.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

This article by Jason Steele was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


NYPD Cop Allegedly Used Dead Man’s Credit Card to Buy Diamond Ring

An NYPD officer was arrested for allegedly taking a dead man’s credit card information and using it to buy a $3,200 diamond ring at Zales, reported NBC News. Ymmacula Pierre, 30, has been an officer of the New York Police Department for three years and has pleaded not guilty to charges of possession of stolen property, identity theft and official misconduct.

Pierre went to a Manhattan apartment to conduct a wellness check on a resident in July 2014, by request of the tenant’s family. Pierre discovered the resident, 65-year-old Ken Sanden, had died — and she is accused of taking Sanden’s credit card information after notifying the family of his death. She allegedly purchased the diamond ring with the card information two days later. Her arrest follows months of investigation into the fraud — meanwhile, Pierre has been suspended from the NYPD for 30 days without pay, NBC reports.

Fraud like the kind Pierre has been accused of can be particularly difficult for victims’ families to deal with, especially if a lot of time passes between the time the fraud occurs and when it is discovered and reported. In the case of credit card abuse, the victim’s liability is limited to $50 (unless the card has a zero liability clause in the agreement), but if the card information, rather than the card itself, is stolen, the victim shouldn’t be liable for fraudulent purchases.

Debit cards are a different story. Fraud must be reported within two business days to limit liability to $50, and if the fraud goes unreported for 60 days from the time the unauthorized transactions appear on the account statement, the victim could be liable for all of the purchases. This problem often pops up with the primary accountholder isn’t capable of monitoring their account activity, as is the case with deceased victims.

This is one of the many reasons it’s important to leave instructions for how to deal with your financial accounts after your death. On top of that, families need to quickly tend to the deceased’s finances, to minimize the chances of abuse. Because identity thieves see such people as easy targets, it’s crucial to check the credit of someone who has passed away or isn’t capable of checking it themselves. It’s especially important to also ensure that the death is reported to the credit reporting agencies to close their files, and the same goes for their financial accounts. You can check your own credit reports for free once a year at AnnualCreditReport.com, and you can check your credit scores for signs of identity theft or fraud for free every month on Credit.com.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

This article by Christine DiGangi was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


How to Actually Start Living Within Your Means

We could all stand to be more frugal. After all, who doesn’t like to save money? But it isn’t always easy to curb our spending habits, and sometimes trying to find the best deal can feel like a chore. Unfortunately, entering the frugal lifestyle isn’t the easiest thing to do. Thankfully, there are some steps you can take to help make it a smoother transition. With that in mind, here’s my advice on how you can break into frugal living.

1. Start Slow

Sometimes it can be difficult to make changes, and while some of us possess the fortitude to quit our bad habits cold turkey, the rest of us need to ease into transition. That’s why it’s best to take it slow when adopting the frugal lifestyle. Maybe you start by just cutting down on the number of times you go out to eat a week and cook a meal or two from home. Or you start to check for coupons online before you go out to shop. Taking baby steps towards frugality can help make it easier to stick with your new lifestyle.

2. Track Everything

How much are you spending each week? How much are you saving? Paying closer attention to how you’re managing your money can help you identify what areas of your life would most benefit from some frugal practices. Not only that, but tracking yourself can help turn frugality into a game! Each month is a new chance to beat the months prior; an opportunity to spend less and save more.

3. Really Think About What You’re Buying

Every time you’re about to purchase something, really take a moment to consider what it is you’re buying and why you’re buying it. Not only can this habit keep you from making impulsive purchase decisions, but it can also help you reevaluate your choices. In that brief moment of reflection, you might discover that you’re needlessly paying more for a name brand, or that you’d actually save more if you bought two smaller portions instead of the “family-sized” box.

You might even discover that you’re buying more than you actually need for the week. Do yourself the favor and take time to really see if your hard-earned money is being put to good use.

4. Learn to Be Self-Reliant

Whenever you go out to eat or hire a handyman, you’re paying extra for the cost of someone’s labor. Learning how to cook your own meals or how to fix your leaky faucet could save you a ton of money in the long run. Try to take a little time each week to educate yourself on how to take care of a small task. Pick up a DIY book or two, enroll in a class or just ask a friend who’s in the know to show you how. Every lesson you learn is another step toward a frugal lifestyle.

5. Do What’s Easiest and Best for You

Not every frugal habit is going to stick, and that’s OK. Frugality can mean different things to different people. While some folks might take enjoyment in thrifting and hunting down a bargain, others may just want to cut out coupons and garden to save on vegetables. Find what habits work best for you and you’ll be better able to stick to a frugal lifestyle. Remember: Frugal doesn’t mean you’re cheap, it means you’re smart with money and know when it’s worth spending.

Adopting a frugal lifestyle is a great way to maximize your savings potential. While the changes may be difficult to manage at first, your new money-saving habits can soon become second nature. Believe me, you won’t miss that extra night of take-out once you see the dollars in your savings!

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

This article by Leslie Tayne was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


The Two Most Important Words for Fraud Victims: Zero Liability

When someone steals from you, there’s very little to be happy about. First of all, it’s a stressful situation. On top of that, you have to worry about the value of what you’ve lost, and if your stolen possessions include something like a credit card, cellphone or personally identifying information (PII), you have to be concerned about how much more this thief could cost you. In these situations, these two words might be your best friends: zero liability.

In some cases, consumers may not be liable for any fraudulent activity committed in their name, but consumer protections vary by type of product and the company you got it from. Whenever you realize you’ve become a victim of fraud, act quickly to put a stop to the activity and find out what you’re legally responsible for.

There are different consumer protections for credit cards and debit cards, because they fall under different laws. With credit cards, you can only be liable for up to $50 of unauthorized transactions, but if the card wasn’t present at the time of the transaction (i.e. someone stole your data but not your physical card), you aren’t liable for any of it.

Some credit cards offer zero liability, no matter the circumstances. It’s something to look into when you’re considering getting a new card. Many card issuers have started offering zero liability, but to be sure, you should look at your credit card agreement, says Jonathan G. Stein, a consumer law attorney in California, who works with people on a variety of fraud, debt and identity theft issues.

“I always say, ‘What’s your credit card agreement say?’ and 99.9% of the time, they say, ‘What credit card agreement?’ These days, most people are applying for cards online, and they don’t take the time to read through all the fine print,” Stein says.

Stein says he often sees banks treating credit and debit card fraud the same, even though the consumer protections differ. With debit cards, typically you must report the stolen card within two business days, otherwise your liability could exceed $50. If your statement shows unauthorized purchases, even though your card isn’t missing, and you don’t report them within 60 days of the statement date, you could be liable for all of the transactions.

Stein suggests filing a police report in the event of any unauthorized use of your personal information — including loan fraud and card theft — in addition to notifying the financial institution. Even if your contract with the bank or card issuer says you’re liable for some fraudulent transactions, it doesn’t hurt to try negotiating.

“Generally they (agreements) are set in stone, but banks are willing to waive them for good customers, or if you can convince them there’s a good reason they should,” Stein says.

It’s also important to check your credit reports regularly for signs of fraud — such as new accounts you didn’t apply for, or unexpected higher balances reported on existing accounts. You’re entitled to free credit reports once a year from each of the three major credit reporting agencies. You can also get a free credit report summary from Credit.com, updated monthly, to look for important changes.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

This article by Christine DiGangi was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


6 Mistakes You Make When You Check Your Credit

You may know that if you apply for a credit card, loan, a place to live or perhaps a job, there will be a credit check. But do you know what someone reviewing your credit will find? You can have at least an idea of the answer if you check your own credit first. Doing so won’t affect your credit scores, so that’s not a worry. Still, there are some common mistakes consumers make when they check their credit.

You have the right to one free credit report every year from each of the three major credit reporting agencies. Some people choose to look at all three of them at once; others choose a different one to review every four months. And though federal law doesn’t yet give you a right to see your credit scores (which are derived from information in your credit reports) for free, there are plenty of free ways to do so. Some credit card issuers put your score on your statement or give you access to it online. You can also find free scores online (you can get two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com, updated monthly, with personalized suggestions for improving yours).

So the biggest possible mistake is failing to check your credit at all. But assuming that you do, here are some missteps that could leave you with that “woulda, coulda, shoulda” feeling of regret.

1. Not keeping a credit report copy (in a safe place).

Whether you save a printout of your credit report or keep the information on your laptop (ideally in a password-protected file), if something changes, or you think something is different from what you remember, it’s nice to have past information for comparison. And if you need to dispute something, you’ll be glad you have the copy.

2. Not checking your report with all three bureaus.

Not all creditors report to all three agencies, and the agencies don’t share information. Inaccuracies can creep in, including information that should have aged off and has not, errors introduced by mistyping or same-name mix-ups. If you find an error on one, it’s smart to check the other two to make sure it gets cleared up everywhere it appeared.

3. Not getting the same score every time.

Your credit reports contain the information on which your credit scores are based. But while you have one credit report with each bureau, that data can be used to create hundreds of different credit scores. All credit scores are three-digit numbers that strongly influence whether you’ll be extended credit and on what terms, but that’s where the similarities end. Scoring models can be specific to a certain industry — credit card, mortgage or car loan, for example — and scores can vary, depending on which credit reporting agency was the source of the data. If you are trying to track changes in your credit, comparing anything other than the same scoring model from time to time isn’t very useful.

4. Not looking at the scale on which your score is measured.

Scores are not all measured on the same scale. So a score that is “excellent” on one scale may be merely “good” on another. (Yes, that even goes for FICO scores; the FICO NextGen Score, for example, has a range of 150 to 950, while most FICO score models run from 300 to 850.) So the number doesn’t mean so much without context.

5. Paying when you haven’t used your free reports already that year.

You are entitled to three free credit reports every year (and in some situations or some states, even more). There are times that it makes sense to pay for an additional one. For example, say you plan to make a big purchase and you disputed an item that was likely bringing your credit score down and you want to make sure the report is now correct — it might be worth it to pay for an extra one. However, it’s ideal to make sure you get your free reports before you pay for any further copies.

6. Getting obsessed with tiny changes.

It’s rare for a credit score to stay exactly the same from month to month. Scores fluctuate, and you want to focus on trends, not moves of a few points up or down.

The good news is if you are reviewing your credit reports on an annual basis and checking your credit scores each month, you are already avoiding the biggest mistake — not having a clear idea of where you stand. Doing so will also alert you to changes that could suggest identity theft, which would allow you to limit the damage and get it resolved quickly.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

This article by Gerri Detweiler was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


5 Ways the IRS Scammers Could Have Stolen All Those Tax Returns

Last week, the Internal Revenue Service revealed that a group of organized criminals effectively walked through their front door and used an application on its “Get Transcript” site to pore over the past tax returns of more than 100,000 Americans. According to several news reports, the stolen information was deployed to commit tax fraud, with an estimated take of up to $50 million in bogus tax refunds before the IRS discovered the ploy.

“We’re confident that these are not amateurs,” John Koskinen, the IRS commissioner, told the New York Times. “These actually are organized crime syndicates that not only we but everybody in the financial industry are dealing with.”

But if I may be so bold, isn’t the IRS supposed to be better at this? It is, after all, the chief tax collector for the U.S. government, for Heaven’s sake. It’s frustrating that the government isn’t better, but it’s not terribly shocking that scammers got through, considering the well-practiced foe the agency is facing.

Unless you’ve been sleeping off a fairytale curse, it should not create cognitive dissonance that organized criminal syndicates committing information-based crimes are on the rise. There are myriad reasons for this, and more than a few involve bad habits at the consumer level, but the overarching reason this particular crime wave keeps growing is simple: opportunity. Data security sadly lags behind both innovation and the hordes of increasingly sophisticated criminals who are hell-bent on exploiting human error and other weaknesses in the way personally identifiable information (PII) is collected and stored. Our digital lives are like so many undiscovered pharaohs’ tombs — wildly valuable and poorly protected — waiting to be discovered.

The millions in tax refunds stolen (or yet to be stolen) by the “Get Transcript” scammers was almost certainly made possible by the ready availability of stolen personal data. Sure it was a brazen heist, but it was also a simple one. The criminals drilled through a multiple-factor authentication process that included a taxpayer’s Social Security number (SSN), date of birth and street address (not to mention a host of “out of wallet” questions like “What was your high school mascot?”) — information that can be had from a variety of sources. Here are just a few of the ways the masterminds behind the IRS hack could have gotten the information they needed to walk through the U.S. government’s front door.

1. Buying PII on the Dark Web

The Dark Web may sound like something straight out of a Marvel comic book, but it is very real. While it may not be as big as lore would suggest, and it is to a distressing extent populated with sexual content that is both illegal and an affront to our collective humanity, it also hosts the black markets where criminals buy and sell PII. Ever wonder where all those email addresses, SSNs, phone numbers, ZIP codes, and credit card numbers in the over one billion files that have been compromised end up? It’s a good bet you won’t find them in the magic trunk of the Identity Fairy, but you can find that information on the Dark Web.

2. Social Engineering

Whether you call it social engineering, wetware or the human element, we are often the cause of our own demise — but it doesn’t have to rise to the level of a Shakespearean tragedy. Phishing, spearphishing, vishing (phone-based phishing), smishing (text-based phishing) are different tactics to get consumers to part with their PII. The bottom line here is that if someone asks for your information, make sure you know who’s doing the asking. If you receive a phone call from a company with which you do business, hang up and call them back. Ditto with a cold call from a company or government entity you either think you know or don’t know.

3. Building a Dossier

While identity thieves may buy your information on the Dark Web and start cobbling together a file on you, they can do it more simply by data-scraping the social networking sites that you use. In the same way advertisers use data purchased from Facebook and other social media sites to find male cat owners who only buy organic products, hackers can find out enough about you to answer security questions in the authentication process of many websites and companies with which you do business.

4. Hacking

Why buy the info you need on the Dark Web when some hackers offer it up for free? While some hackers are inspired by profits, others are driven by the desire to publicly shame and embarrass companies by getting access to sensitive information then posting it for the world to see.

Hacked information is a treasure trove for the kind of approach used in the IRS heist. And there is an abundance of free hacked data out there, especially after the recent hack of the country’s second largest health insurer, Anthem, which exposed 78.8 million people, or the breach at Premera Blue Cross, which exposed 11 million people — or the attacks on Target, Home Depot and countless other compromised companies and organizations in recent years.

5. Insiders

This is probably the hardest tactic to defend against: a bad player with access to sensitive information. Employees aren’t always honest, or at the very least not at all immune to making mistakes. Those who are in a moment of personal crisis, for example, can be extorted or bribed to hand over information or leave a room with files open and unsecured for a predetermined half hour.

According to anonymous sources cited by the Associated Press, the “Get Transcript” scammers were located in Russia, but unfortunately in our connected world it matters less and less where any particular crime originates. In a significant number of cases, hackers operate beyond our jurisdiction or under the protection of foreign governments with little incentive to cooperate with us. Ultimately, what matters here is that 100,000 taxpayers had their sensitive data stolen and are now at risk for other crimes, and that millions of our tax dollars went walkabout.

Whether data compromises give rise to breaking news stories or pounding headaches, anything less than a zero-tolerance attitude toward identity-related crimes won’t get us to the place we need to be. It may be true at this moment that there is no way to stop the flow of ill-gotten gains nabbed by criminals in possession of our PII — but the first step is adopting a “no compromise is acceptable” rule, and holding organizations to that standard.

What Can You Do?

As for consumers – now that their data is out there, there’s no telling how it could be further used against them. While it’s impossible to stop every form of identity fraud once your data is in the hands of a criminal, the best thing you can do is monitor for problems and work to contain and repair the damage as soon as you detect it. In terms of your finances, keep an eye on your financial accounts – daily. And check your credit reports at least once a year – you can get them for free on AnnualCreditReport.com – and consider using free monitoring tools that are out there (like Credit.com’s free credit report summary, which updates your info monthly), or any of the number of reputable paid services.

But it’s clear as ever: The focus now must be on stanching the seemingly universal information hemorrhage that’s underway, and denying Cyber Cossacks a piece of our PII.

This story is an Op/Ed contribution to Credit.com and does not necessarily represent the views of the company or its affiliates.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

This article by Adam Levin was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


Deceptive Mailer Spoofs Department of Treasury for Debt Relief

An amazing reader sent in a new debt relief mailer through my I Buy Junk Mail program.

This one is rather alarming. I doubt the average person would see through what I think is a smoke screen to understand what just landed in their mailbox.

From outside appearances the letter looks like some sort of legal documentation, maybe governmental with the use of the big eagle.

The envelope is even markered Legal and Documentation.

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But the inside of the letter is a doozie in my opinion.

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The letter leads off with a headline that if people didn’t understand or miss the “RE:” would make it appear to be from the Department of the Treasury. As with many of these mailers that I write about, there is just enough to appear to be one thing but a disclaimer it is something else.

And I challenge anyone to determine who the company is behind this mailer. They identify themselves as Assistance Center, can there be anything more generic?

This line sure seems misleading, “This letter is to advise you that, Pursuant to the Department of the Treasury Publication 4681, the IRS is now permitting tax-free credit card debt forgiveness for borrowers who are experiencing a hardship and deemed insolvent.”

This is an IRS process that has been around for years. You can read the official IRS page on this, here.

The next underlined section is both a disclaimer and telling:

“It is important to note that Assistance Center is not a government or collection agency; this is not an attempt to collect a debt. The Assistance Center does not charge a fee for its initial consultation.”

Well there might not be a fee of the initial consultation but they don’t say there are no fees at all. To me that means there will be fees.

Next is an odd line, “You do not need to be late to qualify for this hardship program, however late payments will expedite the qualification process.” What hardship program are we talking about? If it is the IRS publication 4681, it does not say a qualification for income tax on forgiven debt is predicated on delinquency. So is the ever generic Assistance Center calling their pitch a hardship program?

The benefit section of the mailer reads like the typical debt settlement sales pitch and it proclaims the following benefits:

  • An Immediate Reduction of Payments
  • A Reduction of your overall Debt of up to 68% or more
  • Complete Elimination of Your Credit Card Debt
  • Finally put a Stop to Collection Calls and Letters with Debt Satisfaction
  • Get This Debt Paid Off and Restore Your Credit Rating

Wow! So much alleged bullshit here. Let’s go over it point by point:

  • An Immediate Reduction of Payments – But this is typically accomplished by the commissioned sales rep of such marketing outfits asking what you can pay and then setting that as your payment. It is NOT a creditor approved reduction and generally tosses you into delinquency, collections, and potential lawsuits when you pay less than agreed to the creditor. And is the creditor even going to get paid? In most generic settlement program they will stop getting payments so the debt can be attempted to be settled.
  • A Reduction of your overall Debt of up to 68% or more – There is no support to this statement and the Federal Trade Commission really frowns on this sort of claim. See this action against DebtPro 123 by the FTC over similar claims.
  • Complete Elimination of Your Credit Card Debt – Again, this seems like a problematic statement that conflicts with the Telemarketing Sales Rule and limitations it makes on performance claims. For example, how many people who signed up for this program actually eliminated 100% of their debts. Actual performance results of such programs in general paint a much different picture. Click here to see overall results.
  • Finally put a Stop to Collection Calls and Letters with Debt Satisfaction – I think this might be my favorite line of all because guess what, collection calls stop for everyone when the debt is satisfied.
  • Get This Debt Paid Off and Restore Your Credit Rating – Wow! this mailer just landed in a nasty place. It sounds like it has now run into trouble with the Credit Repair Organizations Act (CROA) as the courts just recently ruled in another similar situation. Read this recent article

The following statement in the advertisement is interesting. Earlier the letter said you did not need to be late to qualify for the “hardship program” but here it says you need to call immediately “to avoid any possible legal action from your creditors.” What legal action is a creditor going to take against someone who is current on their bills? The answer would be none.

In closing they say, “You need, and will receive, the full support of our organization to put this behind you for good.” Only one problem with that. If they are so proud and supportive then why not actually disclose who they are and where they are located?

I would advise anyone who gets such a letter to follow my free guide on how to check out a debt relief company. See The Ultimate Consumer Guide to Checking Out a Debt Relief Company Before You Sign On the Line before you leap. An open and honest company won’t hesitate to answer the questions in that guide.

This article by Steve Rhode first appeared on Get Out of Debt and was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


A 5-Minute Guide to Student Loans

You may have heard that college in this country isn’t cheap. Maybe you’ve even encountered this firsthand for yourself, a child or another family member. But knowing that getting a degree is going to be expensive doesn’t mean you know how to pay for it. When you are a student or even parent of a student starting the college search, it’s a good idea to calculate how much you will have to pay in student loans.

The sooner you know what you are getting into, the better decision you will be equipped to make when it comes to which school to go to, which loan to pick and which repayment method to employ. But who has time to research all the different types of loans you can get? Check out the following student loan options and learn the subtle differences that can make a not-so-subtle difference in your final price tag.

Stafford

This primary federal student loan option offers a low origination fee and the same interest rate across the board. That’s right, every student who receives a Stafford loan in the same academic year pays the same rate. However, there are two types: subsidized and unsubsidized. The former is available only to those who qualify for financial need. If you are not able to get subsidized loans, you can get unsubsidized Stafford loans that also have the low interest rate, but the government doesn’t fund any interest payments so interest accrues while you are in school. There are ceilings for both options.

PLUS

These loans are for graduate and professional students, but have a higher interest rate and origination fee than the Stafford loans. They also require a credit check. There is no specific limit for the loan, but the Department of Education says the maximum loan amount is the student’s cost of attendance (determined by the school) minus any other financial aid received. Parents of undergraduate students can also use PLUS loans to help pay for their child’s education.

Perkins

These are another form of low-interest federal loans, but they are offered straight from your college or university. The ceilings vary depending on graduate or undergraduate status and the school itself. It is important to note that not all schools participate in the program and the loans are only extended to students who qualify for financial aid. There are ways to get help paying back Perkins loans as well.

Private

While they generally offer less favorable terms, private loans can help secure any remaining funding you may need after exhausting all the federal loan options. Lenders offer varying rates, often higher than 10%. Your credit score will affect your ability to qualify for private student loans, as well as the interest rates. You may have to start monthly payments even as you are in school, as not all lenders offer deferment. You can check your credit scores for free on Credit.com to see where you stand before you apply.

Repayment

Just as there are different loan options, there are also different plans for paying the loans back to your lender. You can repay as scheduled, where possible. This means that you pay your bill every month until the balance is gone. You can also consolidate all your federal loans and qualify for extended repayment, which stretches out the term up to 30 years. However, this does mean you pay more in interest over time.

With federal loans, you can also consider income-based repayment where you pay back your loans based on how much you make instead of how much you owe. Repayment formulas vary.

Student loans can be a real drag especially during your first few years in the workforce, but the investment in your education can pay off big time in social, emotional and even future financial well-being.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

This article by AJ Smith was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


The 20 Hottest Real Estate Markets in America

Spring is generally regarded as the most popular time of year to buy a house, but with that comes a bit of a buyer’s problem: competition. Home prices were up and inventory was down in May from last year, according to a monthly analysis from Realtor.com. Meanwhile, property listings turned over at a much higher rate, contributing to the high-pressure situation that is finding and purchasing the right home.

Many of the places with the hottest markets in May will come as no surprise to consumers — most are in California. Realtor.com determines “hot” markets based on two factors: the median inventory age in the market and the number of views per listing on Realtor.com, and the 20 hottest markets rank in the top 50 in both metrics. Nationwide, a home is on the market for a median 66 days, and in the hottest markets, inventory turns over 8 to 45 days more quickly than in the rest of the country.

Based on data from the first three weeks of May, Realtor.com determined the 20 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs, as determined by the U.S. Census Bureau) with the hottest markets this spring.

20. Stockton/Lodi, Calif.
April 2015 rank: 38

19. Columbus, Ohio
April 2015 rank: 22

18. Manchester/Nashua, N.H.
April 2015 rank: 31

17. Oxnard/Thousand Oaks/Ventura, Calif.
April 2015 rank: 13

16. Austin/Round Rock, Texas
April 2015 rank: 14

15. Los Angeles/Long Beach/Anaheim, Calif.
April 2015 rank: 15

14. Fargo, N.D./Minn.
April 2015 rank: 12

13. Boulder, Colo.
April 2015 rank: 17

12. Sacramento/Roseville/Arden-Arcade, Calif.
April 2015 rank: 21

11. San Diego/Carlsbad, Calif.
April 2015 rank: 10

10. Detroit/Warren/Dearborn, Mich.
April 2015 rank: 11

9. Ann Arbor, Mich.
April 2015 rank: 9

8. Santa Rosa, Calif.
April 2015 rank: 7

7. Santa Cruz/Watsonville, Calif.
April 2015 rank: 8

6. Boston/Cambridge/Newton, Mass.
April 2015 rank: 6

5. Vallejo/Fairfield, Calif.
April 2015 rank: 5

4. Dallas/Fort Worth/Arlington, Texas
April 2015 rank: 4

3. San Jose/Sunnyvale/Santa Clara, Calif.
April 2015 rank: 3

2. San Francisco/Oakland/Hayward, Calif.
April 2015 rank: 2

1. Denver/Aurora/Lakewood, Colo.
April 2015 rank: 1

These markets have seen tremendous demand and turnover for a variety of reasons. In many of the California locales, economic growth, combined with limited supply and high demand, make homebuying a bit of a mad dash. For places like Detroit and Ann Arbor, the hot market is driven mostly by affordability, in conjunction with economic recovery.

No matter where you’re looking for a home, it’s good to know what you’ll face in terms of competition, so you can better prepare yourself to make an offer when you find a desirable property. Before any of that, it’s crucial you work to improve your credit to the best of your ability and make sure it’s in good shape before house-hunting or applying for a mortgage. The better your credit, the more options you’re likely to have, even in a competitive market. You can check your credit scores for free on Credit.com.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

This article by Christine DiGangi was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


The Gender Gap You Haven’t Heard Of

While many Americans are ill-prepared for a financial disaster, women are far worse off than men, according to a new study by BMO Harris Premier Services. The financial services firm says that men with any emergency savings have an average of $58,061 put away to deal with the situation, compared with only $33,558 for women.

In other words, women have roughly half the emergency savings of men. Let that sink in for a moment.

The “rainy day” fund story is a broken record. Depending on how you count, something like one-third to one-half of all Americans have no savings, and are one paycheck away from piling up credit card bills and heading toward the financial abyss. But the gender gap in savings puts a new face on problem, and hopefully rings some new alarm bells.

I’ve written nearly 100 stories as part of The Restless Project so far, and read thousands of emails from readers. Perhaps the most poignant came from an older, single woman who took me to school about the real problems that keep people up at night.

“How do single people, people who do not have access to another paycheck, survive at all? Half the country is divorced. Millions are older and alone. Tons of people are childless on purpose because they couldn’t afford to have any,” she wrote to me. “If you don’t work for a major company, benefits depend upon the kindness of strangers. It is an unpleasant poverty-stricken future that I face. I will NEVER be able to retire. I will have to work until the day I die in order to survive…. just survive….   and women of age cannot get other high-paying employment because of their age. Double bind, no exit…. Just the ultimate one, and doing so on the job.”

Gender-based income and savings stories are fraught with statistical peril, which I’ll try to tiptoe through here. But when looking through other available data I could find about women and savings, this seems undeniable: The financial position of many women in America is shamefully fragile.

What Research Shows

First, back to the BMO Harris “rainy day fund” study. The firm conducted an online survey of 3,000 Americans and asked how much money consumers had available in an emergency. The amounts that consumers self-reported — which is always a hazard — could have included retirement accounts, though the way the question was asked, it’s possible some consumers didn’t include 401(k) balances, etc., when answering the question. Also, the figure is an average, which means the amounts could be skewed by very large or very small entries. So I went looking for other data to round out the picture.

Neighbor Works America released an emergency fund survey on March 31, and it found that 34% of adults in America — more than 72 million people — said that they don’t have any emergency savings. The figure had grown in the past year, despite the improving economy. And 47% said they’d burn through their emergency savings fund in 90 days or less.

The report broke out data showing that low-income and minority Americans were less likely to have savings, but was silent on gender. Neighbor Works was kind enough to dig up gender data from its study for me, but it was inconclusive. Women and men reported having any emergency fund at about the same rate, and women were only slightly more likely to say they have little confidence they could withstand a financial emergency (35% to 31%).

That doesn’t contradict the BMO Harris findings, however, because it makes no mention of dollar amounts.

And Neighbor Works’ Douglas Robinson offered a logical explanation for the dollar gap.

“While a great many women have been in the workforce since they became adults, their workforce participation rate still lags men, and is often interrupted,” he said. “That would mean that their matched 401(k) would be reduced.”

Other research suggests that’s true. CNBC.com, in an excellent story on women’s readiness for retirement, hit this point on the head: “American women age 55 to 64 with retirement savings have accumulated an average of $81,300 compared with $118,400 for their male counterparts,” according to a Black Rock survey. The story cites similar reserch on “retirement readiness” by the Employee Benefit Research Institute that claims single baby boomer women have a savings shortfall of nearly $63,000, compared to single males, who have a deficit of $34,000.

… And Women Appear to Be Better Savers

What makes this savings gap more painful is that there is some data to suggest women are actually better savers than men. Fidelity looked at its 401(k) accounts last year and found that women in lower-income tiers put considerably more into their retirement funds than men.

“Women earning between $20,000 and $40,000, for example, have saved an average of $17,300 in their 401(k), as of the year ended Sept. 30, 2014. Men in that income range have an average of $15,200 in their account,” reports Bloomberg, in its story about the study.

Critically, retirement savings and emergency savings are not the same thing, though they can end up smashed together in surveys and in consumers’ minds. For younger people, having an emergency fund can be much more important, despite the reality that our our tax code heavily favors retirement savings (actually, our tax code does NOTHING for emergency savings, which is a travesty).

For young adults, there can be understandable reasons to postpone retirement savings — after all, it’s hard to worry about the future when the present is challenging (though it’s unwise, mathematically). But failing to have a personal safety net is a much greater menace. You can’t stand up to an unfair boss when you fear losing your home. You might even be afraid to job hunt. You don’t go to the doctor when you are afraid one medical bill could send you to ruin. Most important, you don’t sleep very well at night when you can’t see even two or three months into the future.

Back once more to the Harris report. The average emergency savings for all Americans, male or female, was $46,000. That’s barely enough to handle a single medical emergency, so there is no gender war over these results. Many Americans’ live far too close to the edge right now, and have been for some time.

But my Restless Project correspondent called my attention to a group she felt wasn’t getting enough attention: “the working poor who cannot get a fair deal….. single women and single women of age.” And she’s right. The numbers, rough as they might be, tell a story that can’t be ignored — women have about half the emergency savings that men do, and that’s an emergency we must deal with now.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

This article by Bob Sullivan was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.