9 Tips for Paying Off Your Credit Card Debt

Buried in credit card debt? You’re not alone. According to NerdWallet, in 2015 the average U.S. household with debt had $15,762 in credit card debt at an average 18% interest rate. Here are nine tips on how to climb out.

Buried in credit card debt? You’re not alone. According to NerdWallet, in 2015 the average U.S. household with debt had $15,762 in credit card debt at an average 18% interest rate. Annual interest alone was $2,630, or more than $50 a week.

Here are nine tips on how to climb out. Remember, though, there are no magical solutions.

Stop spending more than you make

Tell yourself the truth. Analyze your bills to see where your money is going. Car payments, rent or mortgage, groceries and utilities are essentials; nearly everything else is subject to elimination or reduction. And don’t forget those $100 withdrawals from the ATM. Create a realistic budget and declare allegiance to it. Concentrate on the little things; just knocking off a $4 latte on the way to work can save $80 a month.

Keep paying on the cards

Failing to pay every month on every card just makes matters worse: The interest goes up and the debt goes up.  Always pay at least the minimum listed on the bill.  Not doing so may ruin your credit rating, making it harder to borrow money for essentials, such as a car, in the future.

Concentrate on paying off your smallest debt

The typical American has about four credit cards, so try pounding away at the one with the least debt. After you pay it in full, stop using it and apply the monthly payment to the next smallest bill. This “snowball effect” is a slow cure but leaves you with a feeling of accomplishment. This method, however, may cost you more in the long run, so read on.

Pay off the card with the highest interest

Pretty basic math here. Eliminating debt that costs you 28% is better than killing debt that costs you 18%. Try throwing your entire income tax refund or last month’s overtime pay at this bill. Then move on to the account with the next-highest interest rate.

Consolidate onto a lower-interest card

This can save you a ton in interest, especially if you eliminate all your other cards. Cards are available that will charge you 0% interest on the debt you have transferred.  However, this rate goes up after a specified time, usually 12 to 18 months. In addition, the issuer usually charges a fee — 3% is typical — on the transferred debt. Still, this can be a great deal if you can substantially reduce your debt in a relatively short time.

Take out a personal loan

Many lenders, including credit unions and banks, offer unsecured personal loans, meaning you don’t have to use your home or car as collateral. However, everything depends on your credit score. Below 620, interest rates will be high, although perhaps still below the rates on the credit cards it will be replacing. It’s worth shopping for.

Try a home equity loan

This loan, tapping the difference between the sale value of your home and money you still owe on it, also is based on your credit rating, as are home equity lines of credit. In addition, you could lose your home if you default. Consider with caution.

Cut a deal with the credit card company

This might be a long shot, but if you have a good credit history with the company and clearly have just fallen on hard times, it might negotiate with you on a lower interest rate. Like any other company, it wants to retain good customers.

Declare bankruptcy

This is the nuclear option. Yes, Chapter 7 bankruptcy will eliminate all your credit card debt and leave your home protected from repossession. However, it will be nearly impossible to get a mortgage for five years, and the filing will haunt you for up to a decade if you hope to finance anything at a reasonable rate.

© Copyright 2016 NerdWallet, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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How to Get out of Debt in the New Year

A brand new year often inspires positive life changes such as breaking free of debt. If collections calls have been interrupting your dinner or you’re just stressed out from heavy-duty debt, here’s how to eliminate the burden.

Determine where you stand

In order to solve a problem, you need to fully understand it. Assess your situation by listing all your debts, including balance owed, interest rate and minimum payment required for each. Next, order your free credit reports to make sure you haven’t forgotten any debt or overlooked errors. Finally, compare your income and expenses and calculate how much you can realistically use toward debt reduction each month.

Don’t make things worse

The last thing you need is anything that increases your debt. Commit to not taking out any new loans or credit lines and, if possible, avoid incurring and charging additional expenses on existing accounts.

Take time for triage

You’ll save more in the long run by paying off debts with the highest interest rates first. This category usually includes consumer debt such as credit cards, personal or payday loans, and medical bills. Other types of debt, such as mortgages, car loans and student loans, typically have lower rates, making it more affordable to pay them off over a longer period. Throw as much money as you can each month at your highest-interest debt while still making timely, smaller payments on everything else. Then focus on paying down the next higher-interest loan.

Consider consolidation

When multiple debts are out of control, debt consolidation can be a lifeline. This refinancing process streamlines debts into a single monthly bill, often with lower interest and a smaller overall monthly outlay. This may help eliminate debt faster and less expensively. Home equity financing, personal loans and zero-interest balance transfer credit cards may provide effective options.

Improve cash flow

Even the best debt-reduction plans are useless without having enough money. Do the following to improve your cash flow:

• Bring bag lunches to work and eat fewer restaurant meals.
• Try free and inexpensive entertainment including parks, beaches and hiking trails, as well as local theater, concerts and sporting events.
• Sell unwanted items online or at yard sales.
• Take on additional part-time employment, ask for extra hours at work or turn hobbies into income.
• Make sure you’re getting the lowest prices for phone, internet, insurance and other consumer goods/services.

Set the odds in your favor

Why work hard to pay off debt just to end up in the same boat next year? These approaches can help ensure lasting success in curbing expenses and avoid building up debt:

Create a budget to keep future spending within your means.
• Continue to reduce unnecessary expenses.
• Commit to saving regularly, even if you can spare only a small amount each month, to protect against being thrown back into debt by unexpected events.
• Once credit cards are paid off, keep future balances low and try to pay them in full each month.
• Treat yourself to inexpensive rewards such as a new CD or ice cream to celebrate each important debt-reduction milestone.

Eliminating debt can bring dramatic changes over the coming year. In return, you’ll enjoy improved financial health, stress relief and the freedom to spend your paycheck on what really matters instead of having it siphoned away by past obligations.

© Copyright 2016 NerdWallet, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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6 Ways to Save More Money in the New Year

Even if saving has never been your thing and money is tight, the coming of a new year is an opportunity to change old financial habits. Here are some ways to become a more efficient saver.

1. Budget

Budgeting helps you organize your finances so you have money left over to save each month. It may seem laborious, but budgeting doesn’t have to be hard. Mobile apps cut a lot of the work and can help you track spending throughout the month.

2. Pay yourself first

Firmly commit to making a savings deposit monthly, even if you can only afford a small amount. Do this before paying your other bills.

3. Automate

If you’re not confident your resolution will stick or you want to simplify the process, automate your savings deposits. That way, a portion of your paycheck will automatically go to your savings account, or an amount you choose will be transferred from your checking to savings account each month. You won’t miss money that was never in your hands in the first place.

4. Make your money work harder

Compound interest is the interest paid on the interest your money earns in an account, and it allows your principal balance to grow faster. To fully benefit from compound interest, consider opening a high-yield savings account or a certificate of deposit that offers higher rates than the average savings account.

5. Plug up cash drains

It’s not always the big expenses that sabotage saving efforts; small expenses can add up and be a huge cash drain. To rein in spending and increase your cash surplus:

-Shop around for the lowest possible rates on utilities, insurance, TV, internet and mobile plans. Also, make sure you get discounts you may be entitled to.
-Check bank account statements for less obvious fees such as those for account maintenance, ATM use or having a low balance. If your accounts come with several fees, it may be time to find a financial institution that    costs less.
-Monitor daily spending and cut back on extras like lunches out, donut runs or fancy coffee.
-Explore free and low-cost entertainment options, including parks, beaches and hiking trails, as well as local concerts, theater and sporting events.

6. Bring in extra bucks

When trimming expenses doesn’t do the trick, the only way to create enough free cash for saving is to increase what’s coming in. You can:

-Sell unwanted items online or at a yard sale.
-Cash in credit or debit card reward points.
-Ask for a raise or for extra hours at work.
-Take on an additional part-time job or turn your hobbies or skills into dollars through tutoring, yard maintenance, dog walking, writing, crafting, musical performance or handyman work.

The benefits of saving kick in very quickly and only get better with time. A solid cushion in the bank protects you during emergencies and provides the means to travel, buy a home, get an advanced degree, or pursue whatever other dreams you may have.

© Copyright 2016 NerdWallet, Inc. All Rights Reserved

 

How to Avoid the Busy Holiday Scamming Season

You're not the only one joyfully anticipating the holiday season. Cyber criminals are all aflutter, too, as they look forward to the killing they'll make ripping off innocent shoppers like you. Here are some of the most common ways these thieves operate, because awareness can help you avoid becoming yet another victim.

Antisocial media

Beware those enticing ads that turn up on Facebook and other social media sites offering vouchers, gift cards and deep discounts, as well as the online surveys these ads often link to. These offers are often only empty promises designed to steal your personal information.

Additionally, if you receive concert, theater or sporting event tickets as a gift, never post pictures of them online. Cyber thieves spend lots of time monitoring social media, just waiting for the opportunity to create phony tickets they can resell from your barcode image. If your ticket is resold, you might just find yourself out of a seat on the night of your event. It's also unwise to post live from an event that gives criminals a heads-up that your home is empty and ripe for picking. Better to wait until the next day to post about the wonderful time you had.

Pandora's inbox

It may be a mystery to you how cyber thieves got your private email address, but it's chillingly clear they're up to no good. Your inbox may fill up with all kinds of legitimate-looking product offers and delivery notices this holiday season, but clicking on links of bogus ones or entering personal information on the linked sites can provide criminals with the opportunity to steal your identity.

Apps are far from immune

With mobile apps available for just about everything, it's a sad sign of the times that certain free mobile apps (often disguised as games) have been specifically designed to steal personal information from your phone. This is a particularly scary development since many people use their phones to secure their cars and homes. For this reason, only install apps from familiar companies and, at the very least, find a third-party review from a trusted site if you're interested in an app from an unfamiliar source.

USB Trojan horses

Lots of people use portable USB drives, which makes it all the more important to avoid those being distributed as giveaways this holiday season unless they're from a trusted source. These innocent-looking devices are often used as a method of introducing malware to computers.

Gifts that keep on giving … to criminals

A spirit of generosity is traditional at holiday time, but if you're not careful, your donations may never make it to the needy. Fake charities that skillfully tug at your heartstrings abound at this time of year, just waiting for you to willingly give your hard-earned cash to scammers. Before donating, be sure to check out charities thoroughly, to make sure that they're not only legitimate, but also that they allocate the bulk of funds toward their causes rather than “administrative costs.”

Tips to avoid holiday scams

These strategies will also help keep you a step ahead of scammers:

-Only shop online with reputable businesses you trust, using secure websites with an address that begins with https.
-Don't shop or bank over public Wi-Fi.
Protect your credit card privacy by covering your account number with your hand when shopping in public.
-Don't respond to suspicious unsolicited calls or emails. Only open email attachments from senders you trust, and contact businesses only through their official websites, phone numbers or email addresses.
Monitor your credit to catch fraud at its earliest stages.

Scammers may be smart, but you can still outsmart them. A little foreknowledge and caution go a long way toward ensuring you'll enjoy a safe and memorable holiday season.

© Copyright 2016 NerdWallet, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Fraud Alert – November 10, 2016

FRAUD ALERT – Our fraud detection system notified F&M Bank of what appears to be a debit card fraud event occurring in the State of California this evening.

As a precautionary measure, F&M has placed an auto restriction that requires the use of a PIN for transactions greater than $75 at merchants such as grocery stores and discount stores in the state of California.

To safeguard your accounts and your identity, learn more about F&M Bank’s Identity Theft Protection Services.

 

Best Ways to Save at Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a time to gather with loved ones for a satisfying meal and kick off the holiday season. If you pay current prices for your menu items, though, you could blow a chunk of your holiday budget before you even get to the pumpkin pie. Use these tips to keep your Thanksgiving festive and thrifty.

Get a free turkey

The turkey, which cost an average of about $23 in 2015, is easily the most expensive item on a traditional Thanksgiving table — but you can often get one for free. Many supermarkets offer them as loyalty rewards, and even allow shoppers to select the turkey.

If your local supermarket doesn't participate in this type of rewards program, opt for a frozen bird. It can be significantly cheaper, and odds are your guests won't know the difference.

Choose reusable dinnerware

Disposable cutlery, tablecloths and dinnerware simplify holiday cleanup, but the costs really add up, especially if you spring for higher end items. Save money, reduce waste and create a warm, elegant atmosphere by using cloth napkins and tablecloths as well as real flatware, glassware and dishes.

Make your own sides with store brands

Purchasing prepared gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce and desserts is convenient, but it's also an  unnecessary expense. Making your own sides, condiments and desserts is cheaper and often a lot tastier, too.

When cooking for a large Thanksgiving crowd, avoid brand name ingredients. You should be able to find substitutes that keep costs down without sacrificing flavor.

Simplify the menu

It's tempting to get ambitious and create a Thanksgiving menu with more courses than your guests could possibly eat in a sitting. But to prevent spending your whole holiday budget on the Thanksgiving meal, skip the saffron, truffles and endless appetizers. Instead, plan a simple menu with a few hearty sides and stick with seasonal produce, such as apples, sweet potatoes, pumpkins and Brussels sprouts. These will be much more reasonably priced than imported fruits and vegetables.

Make smart Black Friday shopping decisions

Thanksgiving has also become a time to start shopping for the ensuing holidays. But Black Friday, Cyber Monday and other Thanksgiving weekend sales tend to inspire a shopping frenzy that doesn't always result in the wisest choices. To keep your cool:

    • Make a list — and a budget — to head off impulse buys.
    • Compare prices online before making purchases.
    • Avoid opening multiple store credit cards at once. This can lower your credit scores and make it easier to overspend.
    • Hold off on buying toys, which tend to be cheaper during December's first two weeks.

Making smarter Thanksgiving spending choices keeps dinner and shopping costs under control without putting a damper on family fun. And when the weekend is over, you'll still have enough cash to make your winter holidays sparkle.

Roberta Pescow, NerdWallet

 

© Copyright 2016 NerdWallet, Inc. All Rights Reserved

How Much 20-Somethings Should Save

Your 20s may seem like an odd time to think of retirement, but it’s actually the perfect moment to start planning for your later years. That’s because the earlier you start saving, the more time your money has to grow.

Savers who begin setting aside 10% of their earnings at 25, for example, could amass significantly more by retirement age than those who wait just five years to start saving. You can use online calculators to see how much starting saving now can produce once you reach retirement.

Building a nest egg on a starter salary and a shoestring budget can seem daunting, though. Focusing on the incremental savings, rather than the goal, can help your savings objectives feel more manageable.

How Much to Save for Retirement

For those earning around $25,000 a year, the median income for 20 to 24 year olds in 2015, saving the recommended sum of 10% amounts to a little more than $200 a month.

It may seem like a reach, but consider this: If you start saving $100 a month at age 25 and invest it to return 7.7% a year — the average total return of the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index of U.S. stocks over the past decade — you’ll have more than $378,000 available at retirement age. And it could be tax-free.

If you wait until you’re 30 to start and save the same monthly amount at the same rate of return, you’ll wind up with less than $253,000.

Several vehicles can help you build a retirement fund. A 401(k) contributory plan, typically offered by your employer, is often the most convenient and easily accessible of these. Contributions you make usually aren’t taxed, which helps reduce your income tax liability.

  • Pre-tax 401(k) accounts make up around 80% of retirement plans offered by employers, according to the American Benefits Council. Roth 401(k) accounts are another option, though these are less widely available, and money contributed to a Roth 401(k) account goes in after it’s taxed. Money withdrawn from this type of account — including earnings — is usually tax-free.
  • Companies that offer a 401(k) plan often match employee contributions, up to a certain percentage. This is essentially free money toward your retirement.
  • If your employer will match your contributions, try to take full advantage and commit a large enough percentage to get the full benefit.
  • Beyond a 401(k), individual retirement accounts, commonly referred to as IRAs, offer another solid option. There are two types: traditional and Roth.
  • Money put into a traditional account is tax-deferred, similar to funds put in a traditional 401(k) plan. That means those funds aren’t taxed until they’re taken out. But typically any earnings you make with the money are also subject to income taxes on withdrawal.
  • Money put into a Roth IRA has already been taxed when you earn it, so there’s no immediate tax benefit. When it’s time to withdraw the cash, however, you usually don’t pay taxes on it. And anything the money earns also can be taken out tax-free.
  • Contributions to both types of IRAs are currently capped at $5,500 a year for those under age 50, and $6,500 for older workers.

How Much to Save for Emergencies

In addition to retirement, it’s also wise to save for a rainy day. Ideally, your emergency fund should be enough to cover three to six months of living expenses.

Some experts suggest setting aside even more for savings and investments: 20%. That’s roughly $415 a month on an annual income of $25,000.

That’s not always feasible, especially if a big chunk of your monthly income goes to student loan and credit card payments. Consider saving what you can, even if it’s just $10 a month.

Making a habit of saving now could serve you well down the road. And, as your income increases, the percentage you save can as well.

© Copyright 2016 NerdWallet, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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Year-End Retirement Savings Strategies

Whether your retirement unfolds as a beautiful dream or a scary nightmare depends largely on the financial decisions you make today. But if retirement planning is brand-new to you, you’re not alone.

The average working household has very little cash saved for retirement and about 45% of working-age households have no retirement savings at all, according to the National Institute on Retirement Security.

However, you still have time this year to start building a retirement fund and gain a tax advantage in the process.

Calculate your target

How much will you actually need for retirement? Chances are, quite a lot. Retirement may last anywhere from 15 to 20 years or more, and you’ll need somewhere between 70% and 90% of your pre-retirement income annually to live comfortably.

Don’t count on Social Security to cover this; many people experience some shortfall. To determine yours, contact the Social Security Administration online or call 1-800-772-1213 for a benefit estimate. Factor in retirement accounts you already have, as well as how expenses might change after retirement. To close your gap, you’ll need to save $15 to $20 for each annual shortfall dollar. So an annual shortfall of $25,000 means you’ll need to save between $375,000 and $500,000 before retirement.

Tax-advantaged retirement strategies

There are various types of savings plans that let you save on your taxes while you get ready for retirement.

IRAs: Individual retirement accounts come in many forms, including CDs and mutual funds. In any case, two basic structures apply:

Traditional IRAs: Contributions aren’t taxable until you withdraw funds during retirement, which can dramatically reduce what you owe the IRS this year. By the time you withdraw cash, you’ll likely be in a lower tax bracket.
Roth IRAs: If you won’t owe much to Uncle Sam this year, consider a Roth IRA. The money invested remains taxable as income this year, but then grows tax-free.

Both IRA types have a basic contribution limit of $5,500 annually (with the exception of qualified reservist repayments and rollover contributions). If you’re 50 or older, however, you’re allowed to make additional catch-up contributions of $1,000 each year.

401(k) plans: These employer-managed plans often match employee contributions up to a set limit, which translates to free retirement money for you. Unless your plan is specifically a Roth 401(k), your contributions are deducted from your federal income, resulting in a nice immediate tax break. Like traditional IRAs, when you make retirement withdrawals, the money is taxed as income. When planning your retirement savings, make sure to take full advantage of any employer 401(k) match that’s available before putting money into other types of plans.

Health savings accounts: HSAs don’t generally come to mind during retirement planning, which is a shame because if you’re enrolled in a high-deductible health insurance plan, they can provide a tax break today and help to make retirement more comfortable down the road. Payroll deductions for HSAs are pretax, and individual contributions are tax-deductible, up to the annual limits of $3,350 for individuals and $6,750 for families. Then, to sweeten the deal, any interest earned on these accounts is tax-free, and you can make tax-free withdrawals anytime for qualified medical expenses.

If you’re wondering what this all has to do with retirement, there’s no limit on carry-overs or when you have to withdraw funds. This means you can invest annually in an HSA, receive a tax break right away, and reserve the funds to use tax-free for medical expenses during retirement.

Once you’ve reached the contribution limits for tax-advantaged retirement investment options, you can explore alternative retirement savings options, including money market accounts, CDs and cash-value life insurance, to make sure your shortfall is covered. With the right planning and discipline on your part, you can achieve your best possible tax outcome this year while ensuring a comfortable tomorrow.

 

© Copyright 2016 NerdWallet, Inc. All Rights Reserved

 

Best Ways to Start Saving for the Holidays

“Christmas in July” is the name of a movie in which a man called Jimmy is tricked into believing he's won $25,000 in a national radio contest. (It's from 1940, but the point remains.) He promptly goes out and blows his winnings on a shopping spree. When the truth comes out that Jimmy didn't win, the department store owner tries to repossess all the presents Jimmy bought for his girlfriend, his mother and everyone on the block.

The movie has a happy ending — Jimmy is officially named the contest winner after all — but real life is seldom so benevolent when we overspend. Here are some steps to avoid such a predicament this holiday season:

Examine your finances

Unless you know a windfall is coming your way, setting up a savings account dedicated to holiday spending is an excellent way to avoid running up debt.

Craft a budget to approximate what you can afford to salt away by subtracting expenses from income. It may be useful to differentiate between fixed expenses such as your mortgage or rent, utilities and car payments, and variable ones such as food, entertainment and vacations.

It also may help to review how much you spent on gifts last year. Whatever savings goal you come up with, divide it by the number of weeks left before the holidays to calculate how much to set aside each week.

Setting up the account

Once you have your target, the next step is to set up the account with your bank or credit union and decide how to fund it. If you already have direct deposit set up with your employer, it may be possible to divert a specified sum from each paycheck — $25, $50 or whatever you decide to contribute — to this account.

Automating the process makes it easier to meet a savings target while also “masking” the loss. You don't miss what you don't see.

You might also consider padding the account to go beyond gifts and cover holiday-related outlays for decorations, dining out and traveling.

Staying on track

The earlier you know what you're buying for whom, the sooner you can start monitoring prices and timing your purchases to take advantage of promotions and sales. And if you have a credit card with cash-back rewards, consider using it on holiday gifts to earn a bit on your spending.

As the holidays near, you may also wish to freeze extra spending. This could increase the likelihood you'll reach your goal and avoid excessive debt on other fronts.

If you see your budget is going to fall short of projected costs and want to avoid incurring debt, you may wish to consider paring down your list or the specific gifts you had planned on.

Now, this might sound contradictory, but if you have your plan and are sticking to it, consider using a credit card to actually make your purchases. Why? Because using a credit card can mean better fraud protection, price protection and the ability to earn rewards. When the bill comes in January, you pay it out of the dedicated savings account you'd set up.

Whatever you do, be smart and be responsible with your holiday spending, because most of us can't count on a Hollywood-type happy ending.

© Copyright 2016 NerdWallet, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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Protecting Your Mobile Device

Your mobile device provides convenient access to your email, bank and social media accounts. Unfortunately, it can potentially provide the same convenient access for criminals. The American Bankers Association recommends following these tips to keep your information – and your money – safe.

Use the passcode lock on your smartphone and other devices. This will make it more difficult for thieves to access your information if your device is lost or stolen.

• Log out completely when you finish a mobile banking session.

• Protect your phone from viruses and malicious software, or malware, just like you do for your computer by installing mobile security software.

• Use caution when downloading apps. Apps can contain malicious software, worms, and viruses. Beware of apps that ask for unnecessary “permissions.”

• Download the updates for your phone and mobile apps.

• Avoid storing sensitive information like passwords or a social security number on your mobile device.

• Tell your financial institution immediately if you change your phone number or lose your mobile device.

• Be aware of shoulder surfers. The most basic form of information theft is observation. Be aware of your surroundings especially when you’re punching in sensitive information.

• Wipe your mobile device before you donate, sell or trade it using specialized software or using the manufacturer’s recommended technique. Some software allows you to wipe your device remotely if it is lost or stolen.

• Beware of mobile phishing. Avoid opening links and attachments in emails and texts, especially from senders you don’t know. And be wary of ads (not from your security provider) claiming that your device is infected.

• Watch out for public Wi-Fi. Public connections aren't very secure, so don’t perform banking transactions on a public network. If you need to access your account, try disabling the Wi-Fi and switching to your mobile network.

• Report any suspected fraud to your bank immediately.