How Much Cash Do You Really Need to Buy a Home?

Demand for housing remains strong as we enter the spring season, and renters are finding that it may cost them less to buy a home than to rent. But if you don’t have a lot of cash and are looking to purchase your first home this year, you may find that you need less cash than you think.

It was standard to have 20% down to purchase a home 20 years ago. Today, putting down 20% does still give you the lowest possible payment in relationship to the cost of the house, but it is by no means a requirement, nor should it be thought of as the be-all and end-all for purchasing your first home.

The magic down payment amount you can have to purchase a home is — drumroll, please — 0%, no money down. You do not need a down payment to purchase a house.  Alternatively, a 3%, or more common a 5%, down payment can help strengthen your offer. Also, a loan insured by the Federal Housing Administration requires a 3.5% minimum down payment. There are programs that can help get a first-time buyer in the door all with a 30-year fixed-rate payment containing no banking prepayment penalties or hidden terms. (Keep in mind that you’re considered a first-time homebuyer if you’ve not owned a home in the past three years.)

Let’s look at what other loan types require a low (or no) down payment.

1. USDA Mortgage

The U.S. Department of Agriculture allows people in less industrialized areas to purchase a home without putting any money down. You’ll need the cash for closing costs or you can ask the seller for the credit for closing costs. The loan allows a buyer to purchase a home up to the conforming loan limit working with the standard $417,000 conforming loan size. As long as you can qualify, the program does not require a down payment.

2. Conventional Mortgage

The more traditional mortgage loan program recently announced it will accept as little as 3% of the purchase price for a down payment. Similar to USDA, the qualifying standards with the 3% down option are more stringent than if you were working with the more common 5% down payment option. Investing 5% down will cast a wider net for you in the marketplace because of how much stronger you look on paper. And the 5% down option is available all the way up to a maximum conforming loan size of $417,000. If your loan amount exceeds $417,000 for single family home, you’ll need at least 10% down with conventional financing as your loan considered to be conforming high balance, aka a “jumbo” loan.

3. FHA Mortgage

The FHA insures mortgage loans with as little as 3.5% down payment all the way up to the maximum conforming loan limit. The conforming loan limit does surpass $417,000 in several markets — for example, in Sonoma County, Calif., it’s up to $520,950. The FHA has risen in popularity as the ability to qualify for such financing is incredibly lenient. The FHA routinely signs off on previous unfortunate circumstances including short sale, foreclosure or even bankruptcy in the last few years.

Don’t Forget the Cash You’ll Need for Closing

While it’s true you don’t need money for a down payment to purchase a house, the transactions that are actually closing in strong real estate markets are the transactions supported with strong homebuyers coming in with at least a 3.5% or 5% down payment. Closing costs are another factor to take into consideration that go beyond your down payment funds in procuring a mortgage to buy a home. If you can come up with the down payment, you can always ask for a seller credit for closing costs or even obtain gift money from family if cash is still tight. Total closing costs on average can be about 2.5% of the purchase price. (You can use this calculator to see how much house you can afford.)

Here’s a range of closing costs when buying with less than 20% down:

  • For a home purchase between $500,000-$600,000, you’ll need at least $10,000 for closing costs
  • Between $300,000-$500,000, at least $8,000-$10,000 for closing costs
  • Between $150,000 $300,000, at least $7,200 for closing costs

These numbers should give you an idea of how much cash you’ll need for a home purchase. Acceptable sources for procuring cash to close on a house can be one or any of the following:

  • Stocks
  • Bonds
  • IRA
  • 401(k)
  • Checking/ savings
  • A money market account
  • Retirement account
  • Gift money

The key here is that the money needs to be documentable.

Don’t have cash available from any of the above-mentioned sources? Even these sources are still considered acceptable because they can be paper-trailed:

  • Security deposit refund on your current home rental
  • Tax refund
  • Any money you might have sitting in a safe at home can actually be used for the transaction as long as the money is deposited in a bank account and sits for 60 days to meet banking “seasoning” requirements.
  • Selling of personal property such as a car or motorcycle. This cash can be used but will need to be documented with a bill of sale and a bank account matching the funds deposit.
  • A loan against a retirement account to come up with the down payment is also OK, but the lender will need to be provided with the borrowing terms of the 401(k) loan.

Homebuying tip: Line up the cash before you go house hunting. Have a statement showing proof of funds to close that you can submit with your pre-approval letter when you identify a house you want make an offer on, especially if cash is tight. At the same time, it’s a good idea to check your credit to see where you stand, and to look for any errors that you may need to correct. You can get a free summary of your credit report on Credit.com, plus two truly free credit scores.

Being a first-time homebuyer today does not carry additional tax benefits or incentives like it did a few years ago when the federal government was trying to bolster homeownership in leaner economic times. The ability to purchase a home as a first-time buyer in today’s real estate market means working with a traditional mortgage loan program and having money in the bank to best position yourself for not only being a responsible borrower, but also demonstrating you have the merit and capacity to purchase a home.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

This article by Scott Sheldon was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


How to Go From ‘C’ Student to Self-Made Millionaire

Do you have to be naturally smart in order to strike it rich? Is intelligence a prerequisite for success? In my five-year study of the daily habits of 233 self-made millionaires and 128 individuals at or near poverty (Rich Habits Study – Background on Methodology) I uncovered the answer to these and many other questions. Let’s take a look at some of that data:

  1. 21% of self-made millionaires were “A” students.
  2. 41% of self-made millionaires were “B” students.
  3. 29% of self-made millionaires were “C” students.
  4. 7% of self-made millionaires were below average students.

Seventy-seven percent of the self-made millionaires in my study were not exceptional students. In fact, more than a third underperformed academically.

How can this be? Most people assume that success requires exceptional intelligence. This is false. Most of the successful people in my study started out as average students. Since academic performance and a high IQ are correlated, this data shows that a high IQ is not a key factor in being successful in life. In fact, a high IQ can often be a disadvantage when it comes to success.

Academic success comes easy to those with a high IQ. But success in life does not come easy. It is fraught with pitfalls, obstacles, failure and mistakes. Success requires persistence, mental toughness and emotional toughness in overcoming these pitfalls. Its pursuit pushes you to the edge emotionally and physically. You must grow a thick skin and become accustomed to struggle if you hope to succeed. Individuals who struggle academically may be more accustomed to dealing with struggle and making it a daily habit to overcome pitfalls. Consequently, they can develop more of an immunity to the fear of failure and the fear of making mistakes. This is important because success is built upon a mountain of failure and mistakes.

What’s interesting about the self-made millionaires in my study is, despite the fact they did not start out with high IQs, they nonetheless grew their intelligence significantly during their lifetimes. They never stopped trying and they never stopped learning. Until about 10 years ago the notion of being able to increase your IQ would have seemed impossible. But things have changed.

During the past 10 years, neuroscience (the study of the brain) has completely transformed our understanding of how the brain works. We now know that the brain changes every day. We can rewire our brains (called neuroplasticity). We also now know that the hippocampus gives birth to thousands of new neurons every day (called neurogenesis). We also now know, thanks to the study and mapping of the genome, that genes give us the ability to increase our IQs during our lifetime. It is now clear that one’s IQ can change over their lifetime. It’s not fixed. Just because you were a “C” student at age 17 with an IQ of 100 doesn’t necessarily mean you will stay that way. You can increase your IQ all during your life, even into your 80s.

Self-made millionaires do certain things every day that improve their brains and continuously increase their intelligence during their lifetimes. These activities increase brain mass by increasing and strengthening old neural connections and by creating entirely new neural connections. Let’s touch on some of the brain-building habits of self-made millionaires.

Daily Learning

Every time you learn something new, you re-wire your brain. New neurons are recruited and begin firing with one another (known as synapses). As new neural pathways are created by learning, your brain actually increases in size; your intelligence grows. Eighty-eight percent of the self-made millionaires in my study, sometime prior to realizing financial success in life, formed the daily habit of engaging in 30 minutes or more of self-education reading. This daily habit allowed them to increase their cognitive abilities during their lives, which contributed to their later success in life.

Daily Aerobic Exercise

Aerobic exercise floods the bloodstream with oxygen. This oxygen eventually makes its way to the brain. Since the brain uses 20% of our oxygen reserves, increased oxygen flow into the brain soaks up more free radicals inside the brain, making it cleaner and healthier. Engaging in 20-30 minutes of aerobic exercise every day has been proven to stimulate the growth of axons and axon branches on each neuron. The number of axons and axon branches your brain has is directly related to your intelligence. Aerobic exercise also increases the release of neurotrophins, or Nerve Growth Factor (NGF). NGF stimulates the growth of neurons, helps maintain a healthy coating around every neuron (called myelin sheath) and stimulates synaptic communications between neurons. Increased synaptic communication translates into better memory and speed of recall. So daily aerobic exercise increases your intelligence, each and every time you engage in it.

Drink Alcohol in Moderation

Our livers are able to process about two ounces of alcohol an hour (equal to what’s in about two 12-ounce glasses of beer). Anything in excess of that allows alcohol to enter your bloodstream, which is then carried to your brain. Once alcohol reaches the brain, it infiltrates the glutamate receptors in your synapses, damaging the neurons’ ability to fire off signals. If you regularly drink in excess, you are causing long-term damage to these receptors and this can cause permanent damage to your memory and your motor skills. Is it a coincidence that 84% of the self-made millionaires in my study drank less than two ounces of alcohol a day? I don’t think so. Their moderation in the consumption of alcohol helped them keep their brains growing and improving throughout their lives.

Get a Good Night’s Sleep

Eighty-nine percent of the self-made millionaires in my study slept an average of seven to eight hours each night. Why is sleep so important to brain function? Everyone who sleeps goes through four to six sleep cycles a night. Each cycle lasts about 90 minutes. Each of these sleep cycles is composed of five separate levels of sleep: Alpha, theta, delta, rapid eye movement (REM) and then back to theta. For each individual sleep cycle, the first three sleep levels (alpha, theta and delta) last 65 minutes. REM lasts 20 minutes and the final level of sleep lasts five minutes. The number of hours you sleep is less important than the number of complete sleep cycles you have each night. Five complete sleep cycles a night is considered optimal. Completing less than four sleep cycles a night, however, negatively affects our health.

REM sleep is particularly important as its primary function appears to be long-term memory storage. During REM sleep, what we’ve learned the day before is transported to the hippocampus. If we do not complete at least four 90-minute sleep cycles a night, long-term memory storage becomes impaired. Completing at least four sleep cycles the night after learning new information or a new skill locks in the new information or new skill. If we get less than four complete 90-minute sleep cycles the night after learning anything, it’s as if the learning never occurred. Sleep helps you remember what you’ve learned the previous day.

Incorporating these behaviors into your life alone won’t, of course, make you a millionaire – but they can be the foundation to help support you in your endeavors. They can help you facilitate a resilience and strength that will help see you through the challenges of becoming – and staying – a self-made millionaire.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

This article by Tom Corley was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


7 Reasons Leasing a Car May Be Smarter for You

Ten years ago, about 16% of new cars became lease vehicles. Today, nearly one in three vehicles on the road is leased. Whether you lease or buy your vehicle depends largely on your goals. If you’re looking to justify a lease, here’s why it might make more sense, along with some items you should try to negotiate before making the deal.

1. Drive a Nicer Car

About 75% of luxury cars are leased. Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book’s KBB.com, explains, “People can often afford to lease a higher-priced car than they can buy, which typically means leasing a luxury nameplate versus buying a non-luxury vehicle.”

Wondering how that’s possible? Automakers such as Audi, BMW, Land Rover and Lexus typically have high residual values. Because the dealers have that high residual value to look forward to, once your lease has expired, they can offer expensive cars for not much more per month than non-luxury vehicles.

Dealerships then essentially sell the car twice. The first time they sell is when you enter into a lease agreement. The second time they make a sale is after your lease term has expired, when they sell the car outright, often as a certified pre-owned vehicle. If you’re looking for a luxury car, you and your dealership win.

2. The Down Payment Is Low, or Sometimes Nonexistent

If you’re unable or simply don’t want to pay a large down payment, leasing might be the right option for you. A lease is a form of financing; it’s not a loan. A down payment is just used to lower your monthly payment. A down payment on a leased vehicle actually exposes you to more risk and a lost opportunity-cost.

How could a down payment on a leased vehicle put you at risk? When you put a down payment on a leased vehicle, you’ll never see that money again. Your car could be wrecked or stolen in the first month, and if your down payment were $5,000, you will have just paid $5,000 for a one-month lease. Ouch. Even with comprehensive insurance and a GAP insurance policy, that down payment will never be refunded. Your insurance company pays the dealership (which owns the car), not you.

So why do salespeople encourage you to make a hefty down payment? To lower your monthly payment. But while you may prefer to avoid a high monthly payment, making a huge down payment doesn’t make great sense. Think about it: you’re spending a lot of money upfront to avoid paying that same amount of money over a long period of time, essentially giving the dealership an interest-free loan. Instead, consider parking your hypothetical down payment money in an interest-bearing checking account.

You are probably familiar with the term ‘zero down.’ That means you walk out, keys in hand, never having given anything other than a commitment to cover the monthly bills. These are very common. However if the dealer gives you an incentive to give a down payment, hear them out. That incentive may include a higher mileage allowance or damage forgiveness. A bit of leeway could make putting some money down worth it.

Will you make a down payment? Will you aim for zero down? Whichever you choose, getting into a leased vehicle will be cheaper than buying a vehicle.

3. Monthly Lease Payments Are Lower Than Monthly Loan Payments

Monthly lease payments are usually lower than monthly loan payments because you’re paying for the vehicle’s depreciation only during the life of the lease. When buying a new car, you must pay for the entire vehicle – including any taxes, fees and any finance and interest charges, should you take a loan for it.

As a current example, Edmunds.com shows that leasing a 2015 Honda Accord EX, valued at $24,983, is $57 cheaper per month than buying the car with monthly installments. That’s $684 a year you’ll save with leasing. If you need the money now, leasing might make more sense.

Interested in driving something even pricier? The hugely popular automaker Tesla has just released a leasing program. According to an article from Car and Driver, “A base 60-kWh Model S is 16.6-percent cheaper at $777 per month for 36 months (12,000 miles per year), compared to the $932 Tesla was offering under its loan program.” That’s a savings of $1,860 per year.

Be prepared to have your credit checked as part of the leasing process. That’s why it’s a good idea to check your own credit ahead of time to make sure there are no errors or other problems with your credit reports that could be dragging down your scores. You can get a summary of your credit report for free every month through Credit.com.

4. Uncle Sam Rewards You With Tax Benefits

By leasing a vehicle, you only pay taxes on your monthly payment. If you were to buy the car, you would owe the entire amount of sales tax within 30 days of purchase. That’s a hefty bill.

Kiplinger.com used a Nissan Altima as an example: If you secured a low interest rate (2.9%) on a three-year lease, you would end up paying taxes on just $8,264 instead of the sales price of $21,403. Looking to negotiate? Dealerships might offer to pay your sales tax for you.

5. You Typically Pay No Repair or Maintenance Costs

“Leasing a car, typically for three years, ensures that the vehicle has full warranty coverage during the entire lease period,” says KBB.com’s Brauer. Many lease agreements are shorter than vehicle warranties. If anything does break, you won’t have to pay a dime for car repairs. Maintenance costs are usually covered as well.

Even if maintenance costs aren’t covered, you should still keep the car maintained. Dealerships will check the car for signs of neglect, and will ding you unless you’re able to demonstrate you’ve maintained the car as recommended by the manufacturer. See if you can negotiate free maintenance before signing your lease agreement.

During your lease, if car parts that wear – such as brakes or tires – need to be replaced, you may need to cover those costs. If you regularly enjoy hard braking and acceleration, it might be worth it to inquire about an extended warranty to cover the cost of those items, which will be called out in the agreement. When I bought my vehicle, I purchased an extended warranty for about $2,000, and that began to pay for itself when the car needed a $1,200 brake job.

6. There’s Little Hassle

Financial matters aside, leasing a vehicle is more convenient than buying. If the car is a lemon, you’re not stuck with it. If you decide the vehicle isn’t right for your lifestyle, lease a different one. It can be far easier to wait for a lease to expire than it is to sell a car and find a new one.

You also don’t have to worry about whether or not the car will still look stylish in the future – your car will probably look good for as long as you have it on lease.

7. You’ll Always Have That New Car Smell

Variety is the spice of life! Leasing a car makes it easier to switch from car to car. Today you may want a nimble Mazda MX-5. Tomorrow you may want a BMW M5 with its twin-turbo V8. Maybe these are all just place holders until you can get the Tesla pickup truck. You have so many options.

What Will You Do?

If you appreciate luxury vehicles, low down payments and don’t drive long distances regularly, you might want to jump on the car-leasing bandwagon.

Once you get a leased vehicle, keep these three things in mind:

  • Do not terminate your lease early. Switching to another leased vehicle is easy, but terminating the lease early will involve penalties.
  • It’s a bad idea to modify or accessorize your leased vehicle. This may even void your lease agreement. The dealership will charge you for ‘damages’ if you change their vehicle in any major way. Also, most modifications and major accessories will void the car’s warranty. Since leased vehicles are new, they come with a warranty that usually covers the length of the lease. Also remember that unless you buy the car at the end of the lease term, those modifications are gone forever. The next owner will enjoy your upgraded sound system — unless you want to pay to undo everything you just did.
  • Be good to the car. Excessive wear charges will apply if you do damage to the vehicle while it’s under your supervision.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

This article by Rob Infantino was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


Debt Brokers Settle FTC Charges They Exposed Consumers’ Information Online

Defendants Posted Bank Account Numbers and Other Sensitive Information of 55,000 Consumers

Two debt brokers have agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that they exposed highly sensitive information about tens of thousands of consumers while trying to sell portfolios of consumer debt on a public website. The agreements with the FTC require the defendants to abide by strict new requirements to protect consumers’ sensitive information.

In separate cases filed last year against Cornerstone and Company, LLC and its owner, Brandon Lambert, and Bayview Solutions, LLC and its owner, Aron Tomko, the FTC alleged the debt brokers posted unencrypted documents online containing consumers’ names, addresses, credit card numbers, bank account numbers, and amounts the consumers allegedly owed. The sensitive data was posted on a website geared for debt buyers, sellers, and other members of the debt collection industry, but accessible to anyone with an internet connection.

The FTC’s complaints alleged that by disclosing consumers’ information online, the defendants exposed those consumers to risks ranging from identity theft to “phantom debt” collection. Phantom debt collection involves predatory debt collectors who try to extract payments from consumers without the authority to collect the debts.

In response to the FTC’s lawsuits, a federal court ordered the website hosting the sensitive information to take it down immediately. It also ordered the defendants to notify the affected consumers that their information had been exposed and of steps they could take to protect themselves.

Under the settlements, the defendants must establish and maintain security programs that will protect consumers’ sensitive personal information. In addition, the companies must have their security programs evaluated both initially and every two years by a certified third party.

The Commission votes approving the proposed stipulated final orders were 5-0. The orders are subject to court approval. The FTC filed the proposed stipulated final orders in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Buying or selling debts? Check out the FTC’s seven tips for keeping data secure.

NOTE: Stipulated final orders have the force of law when approved and signed by the District Court judge.

This article by the Federal Trade Commission was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


Who is Right About Budgeting Our Money, My Wife or Myself?

Question:

Yo Steve,

My wife and I fight, or shall I say disagree, all the time about spending and a budget. She has one opinion and I have another. She says we should not spend more than 25% of our income on housing but I say 33% is alright. Who is right?

Jimmy

Answer:

Yo right back at you Jimmy. The reality is you are both wrong and right at the same time.

For years I’ve watched so many personal finance experts write advice about how much people should spend in each category of their lives. I have also watched people fret and worry if they run over those limits.

The reality is that the experts don’t know and just made those rules up. Frankly, they just pulled them out of their butt.

At the end of the day the it isn’t how much you spend for cell phones, cable television, cars or rent. They bottom line is whether you can afford to live within your income, save money, invest some, and enjoy life.

If you want to spend 50% on housing and make cuts someplace else, go for it. If you want to spend 20% of your take-home pay on your mortgage and go out to eat every night, go for it. I don’t care and it just doesn’t matter.

If you want to build the best budget for you, then read this.

Most budgets people make are no more than just a page of lies. Unless you are tracking your spending and know how you actually spent your money, you are just guessing how you want to spend your money in the future. Inevitably, when you don’t hit those fixed targets, it creates agitation.

Rather than guess what your financial future will be, develop a spending plan and take a look at how you actually spent in the past month. Once you have reviewed your actual spending, you and your wife can make some educated and informed decisions about how you want to change things for the month ahead. You can learn how to develop an awesome spending plan by downloading my free book, “Eliminate Your Debt Like a Pro” and start reading at page 81.

Now I suspect that your relationship is much like others in that one of you is a saver and one is a spender. Each of us have our own money personality. You can find out what your money personality is by clicking here.

Have you ever heard that old adage opposites attract? Well it applies to people with different money personalities as well. Typically, conflicts really flare up between spenders and savers. Spenders feel micromanaged and savers feel insecure without more tucked away.

A healthy financial life is more about balance than about sticking to an arbitrary limit. What I’d wish most for you and your wife is to come to an agreement about what you’d like to save and invest each month and then just enjoy the heck out of the money leftover.

Steve

Steve Rhode is the Get Out of Debt Guy. He’s been helping people with personal finance troubles through advice and education since 1994. If you would like to ask a question you can visit http://GetOutOfDebt.org/ask and let Steve help you for free.

If your publication would like to publish this column, click here.

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


How Not to Blow a Financial Windfall

The Wall Street Journal recently published a story about two people who were awarded substantial financial settlements for injuries and hardships, only to lose it all not long afterward.

In each case, the person had sacrificed a good portion of his structured settlement — recompense that’s typically designed to be paid over time — to lenders that specialize in converting streams of future payments into upfront money. It’s a process known as “factoring” or, in even wonkier terms, discounting future payments to the present value.

Take, for example, the lottery.

You’ve won an entire $200 million jackpot. If you elect to be paid the money over the standard period (20 or more years), you can expect to realize every nickel of your prize, minus its tax. But if you choose to receive one lump-sum payout, that jackpot could dwindle in value by 20% to 30% or more.

The concept behind that difference is the “time value of money,” where a dollar in hand today is worth more than that same dollar a year from now, when inflation (or the rate of return on a competing investment) is taken into effect.

When a structured settlement is financed, payments that in the normal course would flow over time to the recipient are transformed into a smaller lump sum today. Similar products to structured settlements include payday, bill-pay and account-advance loans for consumers, and merchant-advance loans for small businesses.

The rate at which those future payments are discounted to their present-day equivalent, however, isn’t the only concern. There’s also the matter of how that hefty payout is managed; in each of the Journal’s profiled cases, the remaining cash that was intended to support the recipient and his family over a long period ended up being squandered.

Planning for the Windfall

If you’re counting on a financial windfall to help make ends meet in the future, resist the temptation to speed things up and let the cash flow as it was intended. But whether you take everything upfront or during a longer course, devise a plan for managing the money so that it will last.

Understanding the Cost

No financial institution will pay you now the same sum it has agreed to pay later. At issue is the rate of interest the payer (the lender, in this instance) proposes to charge to convert your future receipt into present-day currency. So consider this rule of thumb: When the cash isn’t truly, urgently needed and the discount rate is greater than what you can reasonably and reliably expect to earn over time, say no to the quick deal. However, if you really need that cash now, hang tough and negotiate for the lowest APR (the mathematical combination of interest rates and fees) that you can get. Remember: the lower the rate, the higher the upfront payment.

Know What You’re Signing

Many states have already legislated or are contemplating new consumer protection laws for structured settlements and other forms of cash-flow-accelerating financing products. In any case, make sure you understand the terms, conditions and costs of the deal you’re thinking of signing before you reach for that check.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

This article by Mitchell D. Weiss was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


How to Pick the Right College

College is a time of self-discovery, intellectual adventure and social exposure — but not every school is right for every student. Preparing for higher education involves long-term saving, hard work and lots of research. When you are entering the final stretch of high school, the time has come to make a decision. Picking which university is the best fit is no easy task, so here is some help with what important factors you should consider when weighing college options.

Location

Location is not just the key when it comes to buying real estate. When it comes to choosing a college, it’s a good idea to find one that feels like the right emotional and geographical fit. Think about how close (or far) you prefer to be from home and whether you like the bustle of a city, tranquillity of rural living or somewhere in between. It’s important to also think about the weather in each location in case you can’t stand a long winter or melt in the heat.

Cost

We all know college is expensive, so, for most people, cost is a major part of the decision. While a full ride to the perfect institution may seem like an impossible dream, it’s a good idea to look into state universities, scholarships, grants, financial aid and work-study opportunities. Calculate potential student loans for different schools and remember to include room and board when forming your budgets. The cost of college nowadays is staggering, so make sure you know what you’re getting into before you accept an admissions officer.

A good rule of thumb experts recommend is to avoid borrowing more than you expect to make as a salary in your first year out of college. Your student loans can have a major impact on your credit, which can delay your homebuying dreams or keep you from seizing other opportunities while you’re weighed down by debt. You can see how student loans impact your credit scores for free on Credit.com.

Size

Think about how you felt in high school — did you feel smothered by how everyone knew each other or overwhelmed and lost in the masses? It’s a good idea to analyze the overall size of the school. This is where campus visits can be especially helpful in making the decision.

Faculty

Another metric to look into is the student-to-faculty ratio to see how accessible professors will likely be. Your experience will be greatly shaped by what classrooms are like (large lecture halls or small discussion groups) and who is teaching you (teaching assistants vs. professors).

Post-Graduate Opportunities

Consider the percentage of students who get a job right after graduating. Some schools have better access to internships, job placement programs, on-campus recruitment and more extensive, involved alumni networks.

Safety

Safety statistics are an important metric for students and their families. Research how protected students are from crimes and how the university police and security systems operate.

Student Life

From on-campus dorms to study-abroad opportunities, greek life, meal plans, transportation, sports participation, party life, demographics, club and organization branches, there’s a lot going on at most college campuses. The school’s website can help, as can speaking to students, to get the best idea about how daily life at prospective schools match your personality and goals.

Accreditation & Quality

It can be a good idea to look at your school’s reputation in your intended study topic, in addition to overall. If you are not sure about your major, it’s a good idea to be sure there are plenty of programs with good reputations and extracurricular opportunities that could work.

Looking for a college that fits all your needs and desires may be difficult and overwhelming, but this is an important investment in your future. Pick the factors are most important to you and you can choose the college that’s right for you.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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


Military Familes: Does the Government Owe You a Bunch of Money?

After a veteran dies, he or she technically no longer has a claim to disability benefits. However, there are certain circumstances in which a widow, widower or surviving child may be entitled to accrued benefits — or money — from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). If you’re not sure whether you’re eligible, it’s worth looking into.

If you’re a surviving spouse or child, here are the circumstances in which you would be eligible to file for benefits:

1. There was a disability claim pending at the time of the veteran’s death. If the VA failed in its duty to assist the veteran in developing the claim, an accrued benefits claim should be filed. For example: The VA failed to send out a letter requesting medical evidence to support the veteran’s claim.

2. A previously denied claim had new medical evidence in the VA claims file before the veteran died. For example, let’s say the VA did not “rate” the veteran’s medical report. The rating is a formal legal document that is used to assess the claim and contains the following: the benefit being claimed, the evidence in support of the claim, the decision (either a grant or denial), and the reasons and bases justifying the decision. You have one year after the date of notice of a grant or denial of the claim to file an appeal – or, a notice of disagreement. In that time, the claim is still considered pending.

3. A claim of clear and unmistakable error (CUE) was pending at the time of the veteran’s death. For example, the veteran may claim the VA made an error in the decision to deny benefits. Specifically, he or she may contend that VA overlooked an important medical report.

4. A veteran’s appeal on a denied disability claim was pending at death. In this case, you may be eligible for those benefits.

5. The claim must be filed within one year after the veteran died. A claim sent to the Social Security Administration for survivor benefits for the widow or veteran’s children is also considered a claim for VA survivor benefits.

A VA disability rating prepared prior to the veteran’s death can be used, but only for accrued purposes. In other words, the rating decision is necessary to establish the veteran’s rate of benefits for the month of death for payment to the surviving spouse.

To apply for accrued benefits, a surviving spouse should file VA Form 21-534 [(Application for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, Death Pension and Accrued Benefits by a Surviving Spouse or Child (Including Death Compensation if Applicable)]. If the only benefit claimed is an accrued amount, VA Form 21-601, Application for Accrued Amounts Due a Deceased Beneficiary, may be used.

Just because a veteran dies, the claim does not necessarily die with them. A veteran’s beneficiary should file a VA Form 21-534 or VA Form 21-601 to make a determination of accrued benefits. It costs you nothing to see if you are entitled to any money.

If you feel the VA denied your claim unfairly, you should file what is called a notice of disagreement. This is the first stage of the appeals process. From here, you can go it alone, or ask a service representative (with the American Legion, the Disabled American Veterans Charity, etc.) to assist you with the paperwork.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

This article by Raymond Gustavson was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


4 Credit Card Rules That You Can Break

They say that rules were meant to be broken, but it’s usually very costly to violate the terms of your credit card or just act counter to the conventional wisdom of credit card usage. But that’s not always the case. There actually are some rules that you can break and get away with it — but you have to be smart about it.

So here are four times you may be able to break the rules without serious consequences.

1. Making a late payment. 

Rule No. 1 for responsible credit card use has to be “make your payments on time,” as making a late payment will typically result in costly late fees, interest charges, a penalty interest rate and a hit to your credit score. (You can check your credit scores for free on Credit.com to see how late payments are affecting your credit.) Yet there are two times where you can break that rule, though they’re not entirely consequence-free. The first case is with credit cards that do not charge late fees, such as the Citi Simplicity or the PenFed Promise. You can avoid the fees, but your credit will still take a hit, so this may not be the smartest move.

The other time is when you have an excellent payment history and you accidentally pay late. In most cases, card issuers will waive late payment fees and interest incurred when this happens for the first time. In fact, the Discover card will even forgive a cardholder’s first late payment automatically. Just don’t make a habit of paying late, as the card issuer’s goodwill won’t last.

2. Don’t open a new credit card if you have debt. 

Another credit card rule that most people will agree with is that you shouldn’t open a new account when you have existing credit card debt. Certainly, those who have trouble spending within their means should not be continually seeking to open, and utilize new lines of credit. But the exception to this rule is when then the new credit card offers 0% APR promotional financing on balance transfers (here are some of the best balance transfer credit cards for exactly this purpose). In this case, you can actually save money by avoiding interest charges on your existing purchases. So breaking this rule can be a good idea, so long as you do so in order to to reduce your debt, not increase it.

3. You shouldn’t be earning rewards if you have debt.

Since rewards credit cards typically have a higher interest rate than their non-rewards counterparts, those with debt will save more money with the lower-interest card. This is because the value of the rewards earned will usually be less than the cost of the additional interest paid.

But there are some exceptions to this rule. First, there are rewards credit cards that offer interest-free promotional financing. In addition, those who travel frequently for work and have their expenses reimbursed by their employer can use a rewards card just for these charges. So long as they receive their expense checks in a timely manner, they can endorse them to the card issuer and avoid interest on those charges by paying their statement balances in full each month. In this way, they keep their personal debt, and interest charges, separate from their business travel expenses, while earning valuable cash back or travel rewards.

4. Don’t use more than 30% of your credit limit. 

This practical rule of thumb can help credit card users maintain — or improve — their credit scores. But when you by pay your entire balance in full, its OK to make large purchase that forces you to temporarily exceed 30% of your credit line and they won’t have a negative impact on your credit score if you issue a payment to your credit card issuer early, before your statement cycle closes. For purchases like this, there is no reason to forgo earning valuable points, miles or cash back.

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.


How Long Does It Take to Pay Off $10,000 of Credit Card Debt?

If you have credit card debt, you probably are so over it. You want to pay off the debt, but it feels like a never-ending process. You know (or hope) that at some point you’ll be able to pay it off. But when? How long will it take? The answer depends on three things.

1. Your Payment Plan

Are you making minimum payments? Or are you haphazardly throwing money at it and hoping for the best?

The payment plan you choose plays the biggest role in determining how long it takes you to get out of debt. The first thing to realize is that there is a potential minimum payment trap. As you pay down your credit card debt, you may notice that as the balance gets smaller, so does the minimum payment listed on your statement. If you continue to make only the minimum payment, calculated at interest + 1% of the balance, at the decreasing monthly amount, the payoff time increases exponentially.

Let’s see how it works out. If you just make those decreasing minimum payments for example, a $10,000 debt at 15% interest will take just under 28 years to pay off and cost almost $12,000 in interest. Not a great plan.

However, you may be able to cut that time dramatically. Take a look at your credit card statement (or statements if you have multiple debts) where you’ll find the amount you’ll have to pay each month to pay off the debt in three years — and stick to that payment amount going forward. It’s a good place to start. If you can pay that amount each month without taking on new debt, that figure can lay the groundwork for your payment plan. But if that amount is too high, you may need to stretch out your debt a little longer or use other strategies listed here to try to get to that point.

Using this credit card payoff calculator, we looked at $10,000 of credit card debt with a 15% interest rate. Making a monthly payment of $347 will get you out of debt in three years, $278 will allow you to pay the balance off in four years and $238 will have you debt-free in five years, assuming you don’t add anything else to your balance.

Just be careful. A payment plan that lasts longer than five years can be risky. If anything goes wrong with your budget during that time you may wind up with more debt. (And if you find the five-year payment amount is too much, consider talking with a credit counselor.) On the other hand, a payment plan that is too aggressive can leave you in a cash crunch where you don’t have the money for basic expenses — and wind up charging again.

Strategy: Find the three-year payment amount on your statement and use that as a benchmark. Then play around with a simple credit card calculator to create a plan that is more realistic for your budget. For some, that may mean paying it off faster, for others it may mean taking a slower approach

2. Your Interest Rate

A higher rate means higher interest costs, and conversely a lower interest rate means more of your payment goes to paying back the debt (principal) rather than interest.

Here’s an example: You have a $10,000 balance with an interest rate of 21.99%. If you pay $285 a month it will take you four years and nine months to pay it off and cost $6,165 in interest. But drop that rate to 12%, make the same monthly payment, and you’ll be out of debt one year and one month earlier and you’ll pay only $2,378 in interest.

That’s a savings of more than $3,700 in interest.

Strategy: Consider consolidating your debt with a personal loan, low-rate credit card (here are some of the best low-interest credit cards) or 0% balance transfer offer. To qualify, you’ll usually need good or excellent credit so find out what range your credit scores fall into before you apply. (You can get a free credit report card from Credit.com, including two credit scores, to see where you stand.)

3. How Much More Can You Do?

Every extra dollar you can throw at your balance saves you time and money. Take our $10,000 balance at 15% example. Add an extra $25 a month to the three-year payment amount of $347 (which will make that $372) and you’ll shave three months off your repayment period and you’ll have saved $213 in interest.

Strategy: Look for ways to free up extra cash — shop around for lower-cost auto or homeowner’s insurance, or by changing cellphone plans, for example. Put that extra money toward your debt and you’ll come out ahead.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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