Cut up your extra credit cards. But don’t close the accounts. Yes, it’s smart to reduce your temptation to splurge by destroying your cards. But if you actually cancel them, it could hurt your credit rating. Here’s why: Lenders worry about how close you are to using all the credit available to you. If you close an account, you lose its credit line. As a result, you are using a greater portion of the reduced amount you can now borrow. How many cards do you need? While the average American household has nine, two or three active cards should be plenty.
Pay your bills on time. A single late payment means that you could pay a much higher interest rate on any future loans and on your existing credit card accounts. That’s because even one missed payment can lower your credit score by as much as 100 points. That plunge means that lenders view you as a risky customer. If you’re shopping around for a mortgage, you could end up paying as much as a full percentage point more. That’s an increase that could ultimately cost you tens of thousands of dollars in interest. Set up automatic payments to make sure you’re never late on your major bills. The sooner you can show lenders you’re back on track, the better.
Pay $10 more each month. Most American households keep their credit balances at around $2,000, but about 10 to 15 percent carry balances that are $9,000 or higher. If you paid the minimum $224 required on that $9,000 balance each month, it would take you 31 years and over $13,000 in interest to pay it off. Increasing your payment by just $10 a month, to $234, until you’ve paid off the balance would save you $8,900. And you’d get rid of the debt in five years. (To check your own balances, try the calculator at bankrate.com.)
Put your savings to work. Many people who are deep in debt usually have some savings stashed in a bank account. They argue that they don’t want to use their hard-earned savings to pay off debt. But do the math: It would make sense to keep the money in savings only if the bank is paying you an interest rate higher than the one your credit cards charge. Paying off a card with an interest rate of 13 percent is the equivalent of earning 13 percent interest on your money after taxes. There are no savings or investment options with that kind of guarantee. Experts caution that you still want to keep emergency cash on hand. A good rule is to take 5 percent of your paycheck to pay off debt and put an additional 5 percent into savings.
Pay more on your mortgage. You may have heard that because the interest is tax deductible, a mortgage is a good debt. But even if you’re getting a tax break, you’re still paying interest—and the longer you’ve had the mortgage, the smaller the tax break (because you pay less interest each year). As with all debt, paying it off sooner is better. So once you’ve paid off your credit cards and other high-rate debt, go ahead and add an extra payment each year (or spread it out over 12 months). If you do that over the life of a 30-year fixed loan with a rate of 6 percent, you’ll shave roughly 20 percent off the total interest you pay. On a $150,000 mortgage, that means saving about $26,000.
Reduce your credit card interest rate. It may be time to get nervy with the credit card companies. If you pay your bill on time and your credit card company still raises your rates or lowers your limits, call the company’s toll-free number (ask for the retention department) and explain that you’re thinking of taking your business elsewhere. You may reap a rate reduction. No matter what you’ve heard about the current credit crunch, banks are still motivated to keep good customers. And check your accounts often. These days, banks are increasing rates even on good customers.
Get your credit report for free. You’re entitled to one free report from each of the three credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax) every year. Beware, though. Many sites advertising “free credit reports” are actually fronts for companies trying to sell you services—credit monitoring, debt consolidation, credit repair-most of which you don’t need. The reports are free, but you’ll be automatically signed up and billed for these products. Get your reports from annualcreditreport.com, which is sponsored by the three bureaus and the Federal Trade Commission. You can purchase extras on this site, too, but just stick with the free reports. If you want to see your credit scores (a numerical representation of how good a credit risk you are), you’ll have to pay $48 at myfico.com.
Shop around for car insurance. An online search and a few phone calls can turn up vastly different rates in the same area. You’ll also want to ask about lesser-known breaks. For example, even if your kids are grown and out of the house, they might be able to get a substantial discount if they insure their cars through the company you use. One place to start is carinsurance.com. Once you’ve found the best rate, ask your insurance agent if he or she can match it.
Sign up for an FSA. Many employers offer flexible spending accounts as a way to set aside part of your salary for health care and child-care costs. You can pay for everything from Band-Aids to orthodontic work with pretax money, which translates into a discount of about 30 percent or more, depending on your tax bracket. But plan carefully. If you don’t use all the money in your account within the year (at many companies, you have until March 15 of the following year to submit receipts), you lose whatever’s left.
Keep grown kids on your health insurance policy. If you’re going to end up lending (or giving) your children money for coverage, it’s much cheaper to keep them on your policy as long as possible. In some states, you can do this until they are 26, whether they’re still in school or not. (New Jersey will give you until they turn 30.) Some states require proof that they are single, without children, and that they live in the same state as you. For the rules where you live, go to statecoverage.net. Even if your state doesn’t mandate extended coverage, your plan might, so call your human resources department for details.
Hold off on that long-term-care insurance. The soaring cost of extended nursing care has prompted many people in their 40s and 50s to sign up for long-term-care insurance in order to lock in a rate. It’s true that the premiums go up as you get older, but not by the huge amount you might expect. According to data collected by America’s Health Insurance Plans, a 65-year-old may end up paying just $126 more a year than someone who bought a policy at age 55. During those ten years, that person would spend close to $19,000 on coverage, even though he or she probably won’t need it until age 83 or so (if at all). Depending on your health, the best time to buy is between 60 and 65. Until then, make retirement savings the priority, not long-term-care insurance.
Sign up for disability insurance. It helps protect your income in the event you become unable to work for a long period. Ideally, you should have enough to replace 60 to 70 percent of your salary. If your company plan doesn’t provide this much coverage, consider buying more on your own. It can be costly, but it’s worth it if you can afford it. Visit affordableinsuranceprotection.com or unum.com for quotes.
Think twice about life insurance. If you don’t have dependents, you may not need it. If you do have kids or other dependents, you’re probably better off with term life insurance until, say, your children are grown and can take care of themselves. It’s generally less expensive than whole-life or other types of policies that build up value until you die or cash them in. Agents will tell you that whole-life insurance is a good investment because your money builds up tax-free, but these policies often have very high fees. You’re better off putting that money toward your 401(k) and IRA instead. To comparison shop for term life policies, try term4sale.com.
Write your will. Although no one likes to think about dying, you need to. A will doesn’t have to be a fancy contract that teams of lawyers slave over. It’s just a written record of whom you want to entrust your kids and assets to when you die. You can write one using a simple boilerplate form and then sign it in the presence of witnesses (usually two people who aren’t named in the will). The legal publishing company Nolo has a good template and instructions you can download for less than $25. (These templates are valid in all states except Louisiana. Of course, if your situation is complicated or you’d like a professional to look it over, consult an attorney.) You’ll also want to make sure all the beneficiaries on your life insurance policies and bank and retirement accounts are up-to-date.