The Pros & Cons of Rent-to-Own Home Deals

That age-old question when choosing a place to live of rent versus buy actually raises a series of questions. What can you afford? What makes sense for your situation? Can’t I just live with my parents forever? No matter which aspect plagues you most, it seems there is actually a middle ground.

Once you know how much house you can afford (here’s a calculator to help), you might be tempted to investigate rent-to-own options in your range. These arrangements can benefit both the seller and the buyer, but they do not come without risks. If you are thinking of a rent-to-own deal, check out the process, pros and cons below.

How It Works

Rent-to-own arrangements pretty much work like they sound. Instead of applying for a mortgage loan as you do when buying or renting without building any equity in the property, you do a combination of the two. The renter/buyer pays the landlord/seller directly and part of the rent is applied to the principal on the home – eventually adding up to a kind of down payment.

The buyer and the seller create a contract that specifies the purchase price of the home, the monthly rental rate and length of the rental term. The seller may also require that the renter/buyer pay property taxes, insurance and any maintenance costs. Once the rental term is over, the renter usually can buy the home for the difference of the amount paid so far in rent from the purchase price previously agreed upon.

The Benefits

This can be an option for homebuyers who do not qualify for a traditional mortgage. You don’t need to have great credit or enough cash saved up for a down payment. (You can check your credit scores for free on Credit.com to see where you stand.) In fact, renting to own can give you time to build income and improve your credit history. This arrangement also allows an escape plan in case you decide the neighborhood or home isn’t for you or even if the property value drops drastically over your rental term. Keep in mind, however, that entering into a rent-to-own agreement isn’t as easy to break as a lease and you will most likely lose the equity you’ve been building (more on that below).

Sellers benefit because they have an eager renter who will likely take better care of the home than a standard tenant. They also get steady revenue and don’t have to pay closing costs until purchase time.

The Drawbacks

Remember when I mentioned that you can leave if the house isn’t working out? While it seems like a pro, this can also be a con because if you decide not to buy at the conclusion of your rental term, you will likely lose the investment or the “down payment” fund you have created. Most contracts dictate that the seller retains any principal payment you made regardless of whether you go through with the home purchase or not. At the end of the arrangement, you could face the same challenges that held you back from buying in the first place — like a lack of a down payment or bad credit.

If you decide to move forward with a rent-to-own agreement, it’s important to read the contract carefully and understand what you are getting into before you sign on the dotted line. You may want to discuss with a real estate attorney or financial adviser before committing to this kind of deal.

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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 Dollar Store Experiment: 10 Products Put to the Test

CHICAGO — As I write this story, I’m stuffing my face with delicious, inexpensive popcorn I purchased from a dollar store. I don’t usually shop at such stores (in fact, I can’t remember the last time I was in one prior to my trip last week), but as a generally frugal person, I found myself curious about the sort of deals I might find there.

During the recession, sales soared at the three major dollar stores (Dollar General, Dollar Tree and the Family Dollar — the latter two companies announced a merger early in 2015). Even as the country moved out of recession, these discount retailers continued to grow, opening new stores, expanding product lines and maintaining sales increases that show dollar store shoppers aren’t going anywhere. Part of the sustained appeal is the increasing availability of name-brand merchandise, as opposed to the generic products usually associated with discount retailers.

The Experiment

I wanted to see if it made more financial sense to run errands at a dollar store or go to a big-box store (like Walmart or Target). I went to a neighborhood where, if I lived there, I could easily walk to either a dollar store or big-box retailer, so it was really a choice of which place would serve my budgetary needs best. I went to both stores on the same day — first to the dollar store — to see if I saved money by choosing the dollar store or if I would have fared better by shopping at the larger chain. It was a decision anyone living in that neighborhood might make on a weekly basis.

I went into the dollar store with an idea of a few things I wanted, but I didn’t end up sticking to my list for a couple of reasons. For example, I needed a lightbulb for an overhead fixture in my apartment, but the dollar store didn’t have the bulb I needed in stock. I like to keep scented candles in my home, and even though there were some inexpensive ones available, I didn’t like any of the scents, so I couldn’t compare those, either. I ended up buying an assortment of small things I often or regularly get when running errands. Here’s the list I used:

  • Paper towels
  • Dog treats
  • Popcorn
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Deodorant
  • Chocolate
  • Hair elastics
  • Sponges
  • Pens
  • Flip-flops

I didn’t do any price comparison with ads or on my phone; I went on my instinct of what I thought was a good deal, and in the moment, I really thought everything I bought was cheaper than what I’d find at the other store. If I bought a generic brand at the dollar store, I compared it to the big-box generic version. I compared name brands to the same brand at the other store.

What I Found

Yes, dollar stores have a lot of low-cost stuff, and I was surprised how many name-brand items were available. That being said, price comparison wasn’t the easiest thing, because nearly every name-brand item I bought was sold at a different size at the dollar store than it was at the big-box retailer. Oftentimes, a price that seemed like a good deal actually wasn’t, once you calculate the price-per-unit or price-per-ounce.

I didn’t buy several things (because I didn’t need them) that would have been good deals, like plastic cutlery, dish soap and picture frames. If I’m ever throwing a party and I want disposable dishes or serving trays, I got the sense that the dollar store would be the place to go.

Keep in mind that this was a random sample of goods, but my general conclusion from this experiment is that generics can be a great bargain at dollar stores, if you’re cool with the quality you get in return. I didn’t see any good deals on name brands, but I didn’t compare prices on every name-brand offering in the store. My advice is to go in knowing what things cost elsewhere. Here’s how the price comparison of my shopping bill breaks down:

shopping-list

A few notes:

Sponges

The sponges I got at the dollar store weren’t the same size as the ones at the big box store, but that didn’t really make a difference. I don’t have a dishwasher, and I used one of the dollar store sponges to do dishes for a week, and it was fine. The scrubby part started to detach from the spongy part faster than with other sponges I’ve used, but it wasn’t falling apart to the point of throwing it out or leaving debris in my sink.

Hair Elastics

They were cheaper but weren’t as stretchy as the ones I normally get. The first one I pulled out of the pack broke immediately. Still, I used the dollar store hair ties to hold my (long, thick) hair back during multiple runs, swims and bike rides throughout the week. They felt lower quality to the touch, but I couldn’t tell the difference when they were in my hair.

Flip-Flops

I wore these around my apartment building and neighborhood when taking out the trash, walking the dog or doing laundry. They’re flimsy, but comfy. As far as cheap, throwaway flip-flops go, these are definitely worth a dollar.

 

Popcorn

I make my popcorn on the stove and season it myself, and I didn’t notice any more or fewer unpopped kernels than I normally get with other store-brand kernels. All of the food I bought was well within whatever “best by” date the package showed.

Paper Towels

I’ve always thought generic paper towels are not as strong or as absorbent as brand-name paper towels, and these were no different. If you’re going to buy generic anyway, these were good enough and worth the savings.

Hand Sanitizer

I feel no more or less germy than usual.

My entire trip to the dollar store cost $23.54, which felt good for the amount of stuff I purchased. Cutting everyday costs is often crucial to staying on budget and out of debt, so I’d encourage anyone who’s really pinching pennies to explore what their local dollar store has to offer. At the same time, it’s important to consider the selection differences among stores, compare prices ahead of time or know what quantity you usually buy things in. Despite the fact that I have a constant supply of Hershey’s Kisses in my apartment (seriously), I didn’t realize that a 9-oz. bag wasn’t what I normally buy, and I mistakenly thought I was getting a deal when I wasn’t. Smart shopping goes a long way in keeping your finances on track, so it’s worth it to pay attention to details.

Image courtesy of Christine DiGangi

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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


5 Lessons I Learned from Working Low-Wage Jobs

It’s been a while since I worked in a job that would be considered “low-wage,” but that doesn’t mean I don’t remember what the low-wage lifestyle was like. Quite the contrary, really. I actually remember exactly what it felt like to be broke until payday, struggling to come up with money for anything extra – like birthdays, clothes, and even shampoo or conditioner.

I also remember being really embarrassed from time to time, like the time my sister invited me to Applebee’s and I didn’t even have $10 to pay for dinner and a tip. I’m not sure she believed me when I said that I didn’t have the money, and that almost made it worse. When you have a regular job and earn and nice living, it can be difficult to understand how anyone could have less than $10 in their account.

5 Things I Learned From Working Low-Wage Jobs

Fortunately, it’s been a long time since I lived the early 20’s poor student lifestyle, and I can now to go Applebee’s without breaking the bank. Still, I learned a lot of lessons from the days when I worked low-wage jobs that asked so much, yet paid so little. Here are a few of those lessons: Continue reading 5 Lessons I Learned from Working Low-Wage Jobs

5 Common Money Fights Couples Can Avoid

Relationships almost always come with their fair share of disputes, but fighting about money can be another animal entirely. Managing joint finances is rarely easy, but keeping the lines of communication open can go a long way. Take a look at the most common money fights couples have and consider which strategies can help you avoid repeating the same arguments.

1. Debt

Whether it’s student loans, credit cards or costly car and mortgage payments, debt can make joint financial issues even more complicated. Perhaps one person came into the relationship with more debt or one of you is more committed to paying off that debt (and willing to live more frugally to do it). Whatever the situation, it’s important to add up the true cost of your debts, how much you are currently putting toward repayment each month and calculate how much you can save in interest by accelerating payments. You can also see how that debt is affecting your credit by getting your free credit report summary on Credit.com. In fact, reviewing your credit reports is also a worthwhile activity to do together as a couple.

2. Responsibility & Control

Ideally, you would work on your finances together in perfect harmony. This may be challenging, and it can be more convenient to make one person the point person for finances, or to at least organize the finances. It’s just important to make sure that person doesn’t have so much control that they feel overwhelmed or the other person feels like they are excluded. To alleviate that problem, schedule regular meetings to ensure bills are kept in check and both of you are on the same page.

3. Overspending

Couples that once operated as individuals can have trouble creating boundaries when it comes to spending. It’s a good idea to sit down and discuss a budget you are both comfortable with, and then check in each month to make sure you are both following it. One way to do this to create a personal allowance for both of you. This isn’t about putting you or your partner on a financial leash, but about coming to terms with how you can realistically spend and manage money together.

4. Financial Goals & Attitudes

Everyone has different priorities even if you share your feelings and your life – whether saving for retirement, having life insurance, saving for children’s education or enjoying life to the fullest. If one of you tends to be more the “spender” and one the “saver,” try to understand those distinct relationships with money and acknowledge how your own attitudes can cause issues in the relationship. Plan together to find a balance and set goals to spend, save and invest. Try to find a compromise that doesn’t force either side to sacrifice whichever goals are the most important.

5. Transparency

Being honest about merging finances is incredibly important. Anytime someone is dishonest, there will surely be trouble as it signals problems in your bank account and possibly even in the relationship. No matter how ashamed you may be about your financial past or present, keeping money secrets usually only make it worse. Talking it out may seem scary, but it can give your partner more insight into where your money values are coming from.

Deeper Problems

Hopefully this is not the case for you, but sometimes financial arguments are at the head of a deeper problem. If someone is a compulsive spender, has a gambling addiction or shares too generously, you may need to seek out professional help.

Money is a sensitive topic for most of us and while there is no distinct right and wrong when it comes to finances, it’s a good idea to regularly discuss them with your significant other to avoid fights down the road.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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


3 Renter Gotchas

It’s already hard enough to find an affordable home or apartment to rent (especially if you live in one of these cities). Rental prices are rising fast around the country, even in unexpected places like Kansas City and Portland. But as more people turn to online help to find a decent home, there are more scams and gotchas to worry about, too.

First, let’s look at prices. Nationwide, rents are up about 3% in the past year, according to Zillow, with median rental cost at $1,350 monthly. That increase is not out of line with historical trends, but as we say often, all real estate is local. And in most major markets, rents are up a lot more than that. Seattle is up 5%. Charlotte is up 6%. Portland, 7%. And when you get to Denver, San Jose and San Francisco, you’re looking at double-digit increases.

To put things in perspective, since the year 2000, rents have risen at twice the rates of wages — and that’s a problem for everyone, even homeowners.

“Today’s renters are tomorrow’s buyers, but with more income devoted to rents, less is socked away in savings accounts for an eventual down payment on a home,” Zillow notes. One factor (of many) that is stifling the housing market is lack of new buyers.

Rents are so high that RealtyTrac recently published data saying that buying is more affordable than renting in 76% of U.S. markets — but that’s only true for renters who have socked away cash for a down payment. With so much income going to rent, amassing a 10% down payment gets harder and harder.

All this means that searching for the right apartment at the right price is more important than ever, and the Internet is the obvious place to look. Craigslist has long been one of the most popular places to hunt. There are plenty of new entrants, however. For starters, HotPads and Lovely put usable front ends on top of Craigslist data, so they are helpful. Mobile, location-based apps like RadPad have obvious advantages if you are walking around a city looking for places. Trulia, known primarily as a homebuyer site, is good for renters who want something bigger than an apartment.

But scammers invade all these sites. They know that apartment hunters are particularly vulnerable. Many are looking remotely, before a move, and have to trust information — and sometimes money — sent over long distances. Showing up at unknown addresses and chatting about finances with strangers always poses some risk. At some point, renters have to give a potential landlord their personal information. Most of all, renters are almost always under pressure. They have to get a place within a couple of days to move out of corporate housing or their friend’s basement or whatnot. Put all those things together and you have a recipe for disaster.

As a renter, you simply must take the attitude that any potential landlord might be a scam artist. After all, landlords look at you that way. So here’s three things to watch for.

1. Simple Identity Theft

The most common rental scam, and the easiest to pull off, involves identity theft. Criminals post fake ads and trick renters into filling out some kind of application, which always requires enough information for the criminal to open up fake accounts in the victim’s name. Antidote: Never surrender any information until you’ve seen the place, and the landlord, in person. One trick that’s sometimes successful: Get your free annual credit reports at AnnualCreditReport.com, blot out the Social Security number and other personal information, and offer that as a credit check to a landlord. Many won’t go for it, but some will. It can at least be used as a stall tactic while you are determining if the landlord is legit. (It’s also a good idea to keep an eye on your credit reports and credit scores, especially during this period. You can get your free credit report summaries on Credit.com to monitor for any changes — for example, new credit you didn’t apply for — that could signal a problem.)

2. The Prepayment Scam

Another common rental scam involves getting a would-be renter to send money for an apartment that doesn’t exist, baited by a fake listing that’s been pilfered from another rental site. That’s usually a hard sell, so scammers add a wrinkle. They concoct an elaborate story about traveling, or an illness and create a sense of urgency — mainly by suggesting the rental is a great deal that’s about to disappear. Then, they ask for a form of payment that’s hard to reverse, such as a wire transfer or prepaid card as a deposit, or to cover the first month’s rent. While these scams are often attempted on long-distance renters, that’s not always true. Some victims are even advised to drive past the not-really-for-rent apartment, giving them a false idea that the real estate actually exists. Antidote: Don’t send money before you see the inside of the place.

3. Scammers Revenge

Kelly Kane, who was hurriedly looking for an apartment in Massachusetts after the ceiling in her current pad collapsed, found out the hard way that scammers have a nasty new way of exacting revenge when consumers don’t fall for their ploys. After she called out a would-be con artists on a fake ad, her cellphone number was plastered as the contact across hundreds of ads on Trulia.com. Kane’s phone was ringing off the hook for more than 24 hours before she was able to get the bogus listings pulled down.

“I’m guessing it was for spite,” Kane said. “My phone has rang about 20 times from states all over the U.S. with people responding to these sketchy ads. Sad thing is, I spoke with some of the people and one woman said she was so sick of dealing with these scams and made it sound like she’s had several she’s dealt with.”

Kane isn’t alone: There are several other complaints about the phenomenon on Trulia’s message boards.

Antidote: This is a tough one. It’s hard to hunt for an apartment without sharing your phone number with strangers. Your best bet is to be really judicious about emailing your number before you speak to a would-be landlord — try calling first. And if that doesn’t work, be very suspicious of too-good-to-be-true listings, or even a-little-too-good-to-be-true listings.

What do all these scams have in common? They all involve a cover story that prevents hunters from seeing the inside of any apartment before some important transaction or information transfer takes place. Knowledge is power. No matter how elaborate the tale, keep bringing the story back to its basics. Is the landlord insisting on getting money or personal information before showing off the place? If so, something is almost certainly wrong.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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


8 Credit Cards With Freebies

People like receiving perks. Credit card issuers know this, and they offer all sorts of gifts and benefits to attract new customers in an extremely competitive credit card marketplace.

Whenever you’re shopping for a credit card, you should thoroughly read the terms and conditions to make sure you’re comfortable with the terms. Your credit score will impact the interest rate you’re approved for, and you can check your credit scores for free on Credit.com to see where you stand. The rewards credit cards that offer some of the most valuable freebies also carry an annual fee, so be sure you can handle that yearly hit to your budget and that the rewards you earn balance out that fee.

Among cardholder’s favorite perks are free travel services such as checked bags, in-flight Wi-Fi and even free breakfast at hotels. And even when you are not traveling, there are cards that offer gifts of everything from luxury goods to free rounds of golf. So here are eight cards that offer some valuable and fun freebies, just for holding the card.

1. Citi Prestige

Citi is competing in the premium travel rewards market by showering cardholders with all sorts of benefits. For example, cardholders receive an annual $250 Air Travel Credit good for airfares, baggage fees and some in-flight purchases, and are credited for the $100 application fee for the Global Entry program. Cardholders also enjoy access to the American Airlines Admiral’s Club business lounge network. And finally, cardholders can receive three complimentary rounds of golf each year at more than 2,000 public and private golf courses around the world. There is a $450 annual fee for this card.

2. The Visa Black Card From Barclaycard

This card is all about freebies, as cardholders are promised to regularly receive luxury gifts from “some of the world’s top brands.” In addition, cardholders receive special treatment at select hotels and resorts including spa treatments, room upgrades and free breakfast. There is a $495 annual fee for this card.

3. Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card

This card offers all cardholders Gold status in Hilton’s HHonors program. This means that cardholders receive perks such as priority check-in, late check-outs, room upgrades and even free breakfast when staying at Hilton properties. Other benefits include a fifth night free on four-night hotel stays, and two complimentary bottles of water with each stay. There is a $95 annual fee for this card.

4. Delta SkyMiles Gold Card From American Express

Since nobody likes paying checked baggage fees, this card offers a free checked bag for the cardholder and up to eight other companions traveling on the same reservation. This benefit alone can be worth hundreds of dollars for a single, roundtrip flight, since Delta normally charges $25 each way for a traveler’s first checked bag within the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Central America and much of the Caribbean. Other perks include priority boarding and discounted access to Delta’s SkyClub business lounges.

5. The Ritz-Carlton Rewards Card From Chase

With this card, guests at Ritz-Carlton properties receive three complimentary upgrades to their Club Level each year. Once at the Club Level, guests can indulge in five complimentary food and beverage presentations daily, such as hot breakfasts, sandwiches for lunch, afternoon tea and evening cocktails. Cardholders also receive a $300 annual travel credit toward expenses such as baggage fees, Global Entry fees, seat upgrades and airport lounge access. There is a $395 annual fee for this card.

6. Discover it Miles

This card is offering 1.5 miles per dollar spent, and miles can be redeemed for one cent each either as statement credits toward travel expenses or as cash back. In addition, Discover offers cardholders a $30 statement credit each year toward in-flight Wi-Fi purchases. Finally, Discover is also doubling the miles earned by new cardholders in their first year. There is no annual fee for this card.

7. The L.L. Bean Visa From Barclaycard

This specialty retailer offers some interesting benefits to holders of its co-branded credit card. Cardholders can order a free monogram on their clothing purchases, and receive free return shipping if they are not satisfied with their purchases. Finally, cardholders regularly receive access to exclusive sales and special offers. There is no annual fee for this card.

8. Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard

Cardholders receive their first checked bag for free for themselves and up to four other traveling companions. Other benefits include priority boarding, a 25% savings on in-flight food and beverage purchases and a 10% rebate of AAdvantage miles redeemed each year, up to 10,000 per calendar year. There is a $95 annual fee for this card that is waived the first year.

Note: It’s important to remember that interest rates, fees and terms for credit cards, loans and other financial products frequently change. As a result, rates, fees and terms for credit cards, loans and other financial products cited in these articles may have changed since the date of publication. Please be sure to verify current rates, fees and terms with credit card issuers, banks or other financial institutions directly.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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


Could I Owe Taxes on College Scholarships?

Paying for college isn’t getting any cheaper, so in order to avoid going into unaffordable education debt, families and students either need to save more money, go to less expensive schools or find someone else to pay for it.

There are hundreds of thousands — maybe even millions — of scholarship opportunities out there, but receiving monetary awards can do more than affect your financial aid situation. It may also affect your taxes.

Defining ‘Scholarship’

Whether or not a scholarship is taxable depends on a few things, mostly on how you receive it. A lot of schools give students discounts on tuition and fees and call it a scholarship, but the institutions aren’t really giving students money to help pay for school; they’re just charging them less.

That sort of scholarship isn’t taxable, said Elliott Freirich, a certified public accountant in Chicago. It sill affects the scholarship recipient’s taxes, because reduced tuition may mean a reduced amount of education credit he or she can claim.

If a school is actually giving you money, that changes things. Such a situation often comes up in graduate programs, when students sometimes receive stipends for work they do at the university or to cover living expenses during a demanding, time-consuming program. Stipends are taxable and should be reported as Form W-2 income, Freirich said. In his experience, however, that doesn’t always happen.

“Universities often screw up how it’s reported,” he said. “In some cases, they have reported it as self-employment income, which means the student is going to have to pay both halves of Social Security and Medicare on that income.” He’s also encountered students who didn’t receive any tax forms from their universities — just letters stating the stipend amount — and it’s up to the student to figure out the tax part.

“I would ask for a tax document first,” Freirich said. “Ask for some kind of official documentation from the school, and if the school doesn’t know … find a good CPA to help you.”

How to Handle Checks

Sometimes, a scholarship program will dole out awards by paper check directly to its recipients. From a tax perspective, this probably isn’t something you want.

If you receive and deposit the check, you are required to claim that check as taxable income, Freirich said. However, if the scholarship program sends the payment directly to the school, essentially paying on your behalf, you never receive that money and do not pay taxes on it. The key here is to communicate with the scholarship provider and make sure you understand how the funding will be delivered.

Scholarships are a fantastic resource for students looking to reduce how much they pay for their educations. They’re generally quite competitive, which is why financial aid experts often recommend applying for as many as you can and treating the scholarship search-and-application process like a job. The less of your education you have to finance with student loans, the better, because while student loans can be a good resource for making higher education attainable for people of various financial backgrounds, the debt can be a serious, lifelong burden if it’s mismanaged. Student loan debt can generally not be discharged in bankruptcy, and falling behind on loan payments will destroy the borrower’s credit for years. You can get a free credit report summary on Credit.com to see how your student loans are impacting your credit.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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


Beth’s Story: Can a Balance Transfer Help Me Get Out of Debt?

This is part two of my series about Beth, who is dealing with unaffordable credit card bills. In part one, I shared her detailed reader question, and I didn’t know her personal debt relief quest would turn into an online mini-book. In the first installment, I covered why consolidating credit cards without a dependable income is often not a good use of limited resources.

If you are just starting out with researching your own path to manage problem debt, you may benefit from reading this series from the beginning.

More from Beth:

Hi Michael, I can’t thank you enough for your help. My friend wanted to show me some YouTube videos about credit card hardship plans and sure enough they were your videos, what a coincidence!

As of now I’m paying $625/month in credit cards (roughly 14% interest), I was stupid enough to use my savings and am just now looking for help. I could afford $550 but would be suffocating; the ideal would be around $450. I wanted to go with a BLP (a balance liquidation plan, which is a hardship payment plan offered by some creditors) first to save me time and interest for about 3-4 months until I find out if this job will turn into permanent and/or I get a second job.

I’m going to receive a bonus in two weeks and will have $3,100 saved already, they will let me work overtime in a couple of weeks and I may get a second job, by July I may be able to have saved around $4,500-$5,500, plus I can borrow money from my parents as soon as four months, but I’m trying to avoid that. So for now I’d like to stop paying outrageous interest and see what happens in four months, then maybe by July-August I could do a settlement only if it will save me a lot, or I’d rather wait until December-February. $12,000 is something I can afford in about four to five months if I absolutely have to, and most likely by early next year. I just can’t afford the $625/month with interest, and $30,000 debt is impossible to pay.

I could pull it off and come up with the money by December-February or as soon as five months and things could go really well in the next months, but even though I will have $3,100 saved in two weeks, the reality is that I’m desperate, I’ve never been in debt before, let alone a huge debt such as this one, my job is still a temp job, I don’t have health insurance and I’m taking the bus to work (I had two cars a few years ago), and I basically don’t have any social life anymore, I can’t afford to spend any money.

I had never heard of Chapter 7 bankruptcy before. The word bankruptcy scares me. It sounds good at first but too much of a hustle and I’d have to pay a lawyer… but would it be the best option? I’m not looking to buy a house or anything at all in the next few years, maybe a student loan in one to two years (maybe). I want to get rid of this huge debt and start over as soon as possible. I’m 34 years old; healthy; I’m starting all over at this new job working in customer relations for a travel business; making $13.50/hr (I was making $50k/year in 2012 …. when the department closed and [I] got laid off).

I’ve read several of your debt relief pages and will try to watch your videos, it’s been very helpful since I knew nothing about debt relief, but I still don’t know what to do. I still have many questions and want to make the best decision, here are a few questions I have to take into consideration:

  • I’m still current with my payments and am trying to negotiate directly with the banks. This is the best approach correct? or should I fall behind payments or try to contact an agency for help (I really would like not to).
  • As of now I’m thinking BLP first then settlement …is this possible? Is it a good idea?
  • Say if I’m able to settle at 40% do I have to make a full payment right away, or do they give time/divide in payments?
  • Do I have to call one company at a time … and try to negotiate?
  • I’m so lost that I signed up for a [new] card but haven’t activated it yet, they gave me $5k limit and balance transfer for 18 months with 0% interest and a 3% balance transfer fee. Should I transfer some of the debt to [that] card? Probably transfer the [other card’s] $7,000, would transfer $5,000 to [the new card] and leave $2,000 paying interest at 14%. Or just do a blp and/or settlement for all cards?

Sorry about the long email, I’m trying to give you as much information as possible; my decision is going to be based on your advice.”

My Response to Beth

With the additional details you shared, I like the settlement option more than before. Finishing your settlements in fewer than 12 months puts you in great shape to avoid risks and get a really good reduction. You would likely be able to settle for less than what I estimated. I will often estimate higher by 5% to 10%.

You definitely have a skewed impression of bankruptcy. Read this article about interviewing and hiring a Chapter 7 bankruptcy attorney. I would strongly advise you to at least speak to an experienced bankruptcy attorney. I would hate for you to not look at the option based on some incomplete impressions.

You may not be able to qualify for student loans if you have filed for bankruptcy recently. That could mean your return to school would be delayed something like a year longer than you are looking at currently.

I will answer your questions in the same sequence you put them in:

  1. I would encourage you to speak to a credit counselor first and get a to-the-penny monthly payment quote. Working through a nonprofit counseling agency is generally preferred to working through this yourself.
  2. You can enroll in the one card’s balance liquidation plan and drop it later in order to negotiate a settlement. It is not that it is a bad plan, but that you are wasting money on payments when you would later settle the debt.
  3. If you settle with your bank early enough you can get the balance reduction with as much as 94 days to pay. In other words, a $3,000 settlement payment could be broken up into $1,000 payments over three months. If you settle later on with a debt collector there can be more flexibilities with payments, but the tradeoff can often be that you save less overall.
  4. You would need to call each bank and negotiate separately. That would go for hardship repayment plans, and for debt settlement.
  5. If it were me, I would not balance transfer any debt. That can often be a trap for someone in your situation. If I even kept the new card, I would activate it and put it in a drawer and not use it until all of the settlements were done. It would be good to have to rebuild your credit with later on.

In the next installment of the debt relief information guide, you will see Beth peppering me with very specific debt settlement questions, including what banks typically settle for, and whether it is a good idea to touch her 401k retirement savings in order to resolve her situation. Stay tuned…

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

This article by Michael Bovee was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


How I Kicked My Fast Food Habit & Saved Big Bucks

For Eddie Vidmar, fast food wasn’t just an occasional splurge, but rather a way of life.

“The convenience of driving to the window and getting my dinner was often too hard to pass up. No clean-up, no dishes…. just eat your food and toss the garbage,” he says. “What I should have done was realized sooner that the food itself was the garbage.”

At the end of December 2013, Vidmar decided he needed to lose weight and get in shape. His first step was to review what he had eaten the previous two weeks. Not counting breakfast, he realized that eight of the 14 meals he ate during that time frame were from fast food restaurants. “Then I looked at the nutritional content of those 14 meals and found that it was as close to zero as possible.”

Eddie-vidmar-before-and-after

Danna Demetre, RN, is co-author of the book Lean Body, Fat Wallet. She echoes what Vidmar observed. She says:

  • Only seven of the items on one popular fast food chain’s menu contain no sugar — even the burgers and fries [contain them]! No wonder you are hooked.
  • It takes at least five hours of continuous walking to burn off a cheeseburger, fries and a soda. Leave off the cheese and it will only take you 4 hours.
  • Many stats show that those who consume fast food tend to get fat in much higher numbers than those who don’t — especially children!

When Vidmar decided to kick his fast food habit, he went all in. Here’s what he did:

In order to break habits, we need to do something every day for 21 days. As a means to that end, I decided to stop eating meat. That kept me away from the fast food places. When that 21 days was done, and I realized I did not miss fast food at all, I stayed with that dietary lifestyle. I drink a protein shake in the morning, another for lunch and then I have a sensible dinner. I eat only fish, vegetables and fruit, and I try to drink a gallon of water every day.

Along with exercise, the change in diet worked for Vidmar. In one year he went from 310 pounds to 235 pounds. (He also raised his credit scores during that time. Here’s how.)  

Better Food Fast

Demetre agrees that habits are key, and can either work for or against us when we try to change. In her book, she suggests practicing a “delay” strategy. “Because fast food is so accessible, we often feel inclined to pull into our favorite feeding hole without even thinking,” she says. “If you make it a new habit to always delay at least 10 minutes before caving into a food craving, you will find the urge passes.”

Also key: have high quality food on hand for when you’re hungry, tired, busy—or all three.

“By packing a healthy lunch or a few healthy snacks – that are both convenient and nutritious – you may find it easier to resist the next request to get the ‘Combo’ or ‘Super-Size’,” she says. She recommends keeping these snacks on hand: 

  • ¼ cup nuts
  • Quality beef jerky
  • Apples, bananas and oranges
  • Quality popcorn

Demetre’s co-author Ellie Kay knows well how easy it is for families can fall into the fast food trap. After marrying her husband, an Air Force fighter pilot, she went from being a new wife and stepmom of two children with $40,000 in consumer debt to being completely debt-free in two and a half years—all on one military income. She and her husband also had five more children together, making her a very busy mom.

“Part of the reason we eat fast food is due to convenience and because we are too stressed for time to eat,” she says. “To counter this, prepare double portions of your favorite casseroles and freeze one for later. Or cut them into single serving portions and create your own healthy, cost-effective frozen dinners.”

When her kids were young and the family was always on the go between school and sports, she made dozens of bean, meat and cheese burritos and froze them. “These were easy to microwave and take on the go,” she says. “I calculated that it saved us an average of $250 per month on what we would spend for fast food.”

And if the problem is that all of the cooking duties seem to be falling on one member of the household, and that person gets tired of cooking, split it up, she suggests. Give each family member the job of making meals one night a week. “Give them a budget and let them watch cooking shows to get inspired,” she says. “There’s nothing like watching the 12-year-olds on ‘Master Chef Jr’ to make your teens get inspired to try something new.” As a bonus, your kids will learn cooking and budgeting skills.

Your Bottom Line

Avoiding fast food isn’t just healthier for your body. It can be good for your bottom line as well. Tom Corley, who studied the habits of the rich compared to the poor and shared that research in his book Rich Habits, found that when it came to eating fast food three or more times a week, 75% of the wealthy did not have that habit, while 69% of the poor did. In his research, Corley says he found that “self-made millionaires made a habit out of eating healthy. This included avoiding junk food, candy and fast food.”

Just be sure to watch your spending as you transition away from the drive-through. If you’re not careful, spending on groceries and take-out can skyrocket. That can wreck your budget, and can also hurt your credit scores if you charge more on your credit cards. (Ideally, it’s a good idea to keep your debt usage ratio on your credit cards at 20% – 25%. You can check yours by getting your credit scores for free on Credit.com.)

“Fast food seems cheap until you factor in the damage you are doing to your body,” says Vidmar. “While that $5 deal meal sounds good, it really isn’t. That same $5 will easily buy you fresh ingredients.”

Image courtesy Eddie Vidmar

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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


Reducing the Cost of Attending an Out of Town Wedding

You knew your best friend’s son was getting married, but when the “Save the Date” card arrived, it was a reminder to make plans to attend. According to the Huffington Post (May 2013), it costs about $539 per guest to attend a wedding for clothes, gift, and incidentals. But you live in Springfield, Illinois and this wedding is in Springfield, Massachusetts; you and your spouse plan to attend. It’s time to add travel costs for this weekend of nuptial celebrations. How can you reduce the cost of an out of town wedding?

How will you get to this wedding?

Making travel plans for the wedding is your first task. There are two variables to consider. First, determine how many people from your family, adults and children, will attend. Second, determine whether you’ll need a vehicle while there. For one person going alone, air travel is often your cheapest option.

Get online on sites like Orbitz.com and type in different dates and nearby airports. Compare the fares. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays are often days with the lowest prices for purchasing air tickets and also sometimes cheaper days for flying. If your work schedule is somewhat flexible, you may have some freedom to fly when fares are lowest.

Amtrak trains often offer decent fares, especially if you’re eligible for a discount such as AAA or seniors over 62 years old. But be sure to figure out the cost of meals in route, and the number of hours involved in traveling; if your train involves an overnight, will you be able to sleep in a regular seat? If you purchase a sleeper car, then you’re probably smarter to fly.

If you enjoy driving and think you may need a vehicle for the wedding weekend, then using your car or van may be a good way for you family to attend this out of town wedding. The Internal Revenue suggests that a car costs about 57 cents per mile driven. Depending on why type of vehicle you are driving, the current gasoline prices and the number of round trip miles you expect to drive, this may or may not be a good way to get to this out of town wedding.

Where will you stay during the wedding weekend?

Once you have your transportation in place, you need to arrange for your accommodations. Upscale weddings often reserve a limited number of hotel rooms at a discounted rate for wedding guests. This might be convenient, but often not the cheapest option. And if you are traveling with children, you will need a second room or at least a cot or crib in your room. If you don’t have a friend or relative in the area who is offering you a stay at their home, you might want to search online for motels nearby that are more affordable. This is where having your own vehicle will come in handy, even if it is one that you rent in the town where the wedding is held. Be sure to ask the wedding hosts what they recommend before you book a room.

You will have meal expenses also. The wedding events will likely provide most of them but not all. Having a motel room with a small refrigerator could be cost effective, especially if there is a nearby grocery. Check it out.

Decide what you will wear for the wedding weekend.

The wedding hosts will inform you exactly how many events there will be and how fancy they are. Before you panic at the thought of adding expensive clothing to your wardrobe, look in your closet. Accessorizing with scarves and jewelry can add mileage to clothing that has been worn to other fancy events. Even so, you may want to start with a visit to a nearby resale or consignment clothing store. You’d be surprised at the beautiful upscale garments you can find at these shops that have been worn to weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, and other semi-formal celebrations.

You can give appropriate but affordable wedding gift.

If you have a talent, like quilting, you can personalize a very special handmade gift for cheap. The engaged couple will appreciate your special gift. If not, get to the wedding gift registry before others do to find the biggest selection of gifts that the bride and groom want.

Attending an out of town wedding does not have to put you in the poor house. Make your plans early. Shop for bargains on travel, clothes, and a gift.

Debra is an occupational therapist, accountant, teacher and freelance writer. She is a writer for Advance for Occupational Therapy Practitioners. She also writes for Grand Magazine, has some items (fiction and non fiction) selling on Amazon.com (kindle) and has written several articles for freelancewriting.com. Learn more about her at DebraKarplus.blogspot.com. She is also a frequent contributor to TheDollarStretcher.com. Visit TheDollarStretcher.com today for great wedding gift ideas.

This article by Debra Karplus first appeared on The Dollar Stretcher and was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.