Friday, December 21, 2012

Consolidating Debt with Personal Loans - Good idea?

The New Year is nearly here. A lot of us are thinking about our finances and how we can improve them in 2013. Personal loans play an important role for those who are trying to get out of debt quickly. Properly used, they can be an easy way to paying off high interest credit card debt. If they are used improperly, they are a fast ticket to a lower credit score.

Let’s keep in mind that bill consolidation, from the standpoint of a credit union, means eliminating debt, building credit scores, and creating a consumer solution that can be easily managed based on the member’s income. Depending upon the extent of the member’s debt, we will often ask that they close several of their outstanding credit cards. Why? It will do no good to consolidate their debt and have them run it back up. We will take a look at their credit and income to determine what credit can be retained by the member and what they would need to close in order to receive the loan or line of credit for the bill consolidation.

Often, CU’s will recommend a member gets credit counseling prior to their consolidation. Credit Counselors teach the member how to budget, to use their online banking to manage their finances, and help them understand the consequences of extensive debt and its effect on their credit scores. It can also be helpful if the credit union offers workshops on these subjects as Meriwest Credit Union does. For more info on personal lines of credit, click here.

Any bill consolidation should offer you a lower rate of interest than that which you are currently paying and a more affordable payment. Currently, for someone with a 740 FICO score, we can offer 15% on a personal bill consolidation loan or 10.50% on a personal line of credit. Please keep in mind the line of credit is adjustable and when rates go up, which they will, this rate could rise rather quickly.

One of the dangers of bill consolidation is irresponsible borrowers. A person can get a consolidation loan, consolidate their debts into a more reasonable and affordable alternative and then go out and acquire more debt. This completely defeats the purpose of bill consolidation and puts them on the fast track to a low credit score or worse.

We must also consider that closing out a credit card account can lower your credit score. Closing out cards that we have had for a long time will negatively effect our credit. When those credit lines are removed we lose the available line as part of our balance ratio calculation (for more info on this, see our blog “Your Fico Score, Mystery No More”) and we lose the history of managing that credit after a few months. Opening a new line can offset some of the FICO points lost to closing a line.

Don’t want to close the line of credit? You have some options. You can cut the card in half and simply not use it thus leaving the account open. If you are a disciplined person, you can lock your credit cards in a drawer and avoid using them; out of sight, out of mind.

Homeowners have another option available to them; the Home Equity Line of Credit or HELOC. The HELOC is line of credit based on your home’s equity. Typically, it has a lower rate than unsecured personal loans and may offer tax advantages for some homeowners. It is handy for home improvement, bill consolidation, and a myriad of other uses. As a matter of fact, Equity Lines of Credit are worthy of their own blog! We will have one for you on that next year.

Alternatives: There are offers from credit card vendors to transfer balances at a lower rate. They encourage borrowers to use a credit card check to pay off debt at other vendors and transfer that debt to their card. Consumers need to be mindful that the low interest rate offered on these is usually a teaser and may go up in time. Some cards may offer a lowered rate for the life of the transferred debt. These can be a pretty good deal provided the borrower is responsible and does not incur further debt during the pay off period. But don’t miss a payment! You could be subject to penalty interest and see your preferred low rate rise well above 18%.

Some things to consider before combining balances on another credit card:

-          Do you have adequate credit limit for the transfer?
-          Is the Introductory rate a temporary Teaser Rate or fixed for the term of payoff?
-          Is there a fee for the balance transfer? (this increases your cost of borrowing.)

Finally, before considering any consolidation, can you buckle down and get out of debt on your own without help? Can you rearrange your budget, be disciplined in your spending, and commit your spare dollars to paying off your debt? If one eats out for lunch everyday, it can cost over $35 a week. Bringing a lunch from home can save $100 a month. That money can go a long way toward paying off debt. On any credit card or loan, you can make larger payments and any amount you pay over your monthly interest gets credited against your principle, thus reducing the amount of interest you will pay the next month. Keep that cycle up and you will pay off your debts a lot faster.

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Reality Based Budgets for Teens and College Students – Jan. 16th
Our next Financial Education Workshop will be Reality Based Budgets for Teens and College Students. It is a post college simulation of renting an apartment, buying a car, and developing a spending and savings plan. It is a fun and interactive session for the whole family and really opens the door to discussions about managing money. If this is something you or a member of your family needs, please feel free to join us. These workshops are open to the public.

Reality Based Budgets
6:30pm January 16th at our Chesbro Main Office Location
5615 Chesbro Ave, San Jose CA 95123

Please RSVP with

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Hungry for more information on Money Management? Check out Len Penzo’s Financial Blog. Len provides excellent financial insights with a sense of humor.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Managing Holiday Credit Card Debt

Imagine yourself at a department store. You are approaching the check out. How are you going to pay for this purchase? Are you using your debit card because you planned your holiday spending? Or are you using your credit cards because your only plan is to spend and eventually pay it back?

When it comes down to holiday spending, we have a choice.

Choice #1: We can go into the holidays financially blind and spend to our heart’s content and put our heads in the sand and deal with it in the New Year. This is the way a lot of people approach the holidays and they pay for it monetarily and emotionally. Not only that, but their credit scores take a hit as their credit card balances rise. Their monthly costs go up because the minimum payments on their cards increase due to larger balances. This reduces their spending power until they pay off some of that holiday debt!

Choice #2: Go into the holidays with a spending plan that let’s you buy thoughtful gifts for your family and friends but does not allow you to break the bank. That is really the best course of action. A plan is always better than winging it and winging it with money is never a good idea. To make this action effective, you have to save before the holidays come. Set up an automatic transfer from your checking to a savings account.

Next year in January, you may want to open a “Christmas or Holiday Club” account for your holiday savings if your bank or credit union still offers that. The old club accounts had money automatically transferred from your checking account and was cashed in before the holidays and paid out to the accountholder to pay for gifts. Lacking a “Christmas Club” type of account? Open a savings especially for your holiday spending and set up an automatic transfer from your checking account each month. The automatic transfer happens without any action on your part. Just remember to enter it in your check register or monitor your online banking so you don’t overdraw your checking. When the holidays are here, draw the funds from your savings and spend it to your heart’s content.

If you must use credit to pay for your gift giving, let’s consider some things that might save us some money. Let’s assume you plan to pay this newly incurred balance off in six months. How much do you plan to spend on gifts? That’s the starting point. Take that amount and divide it by six and add that to your current monthly payment on that card. Can you afford that payment monthly for the next six months? Then you may have the right amount to spend on gifts. Is it too high? You need to adjust your spending plan, not your time horizon for pay off! Remember, extending the pay off time for any balance adds more interest to your debt. Paying interest is like renting money. Who benefits when you pay interest? Certainly not me or you. The bank does! If this sounds like a good idea, you use way too much credit and need an intervention!

But, if you really like making that monthly payment and the cost is no object for you, then you might be more inclined to take Choice #1.

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Our next financial education workshop will be “Real World Budgets for Teens” and will be presented at our Chesbro Main Office on January 16th at 6:30pm. Real World Budgets takes a teen and their parents thru a post college simulation of managing money, a job, and the payments that come with independence. I hope you can join us.

Please RSVP with Greg Meyer at or 408-365-6328.

Click here for a list of all of our financial education offerings.

Check us out on Facebook!

Friday, November 30, 2012

Alternative Credit Scores

Over 70 million adults in the U.S. do not have a credit score or have a very limited credit history. Individuals and families living with limited credit files are forced to take advantage of alternative financial sources to cash their checks or get temporary short term loans aka Pay Day Loans. Users of alternative financial sources generally pay very high costs in relation to the usual transactions you might perform at your credit union. Cashing a paycheck could cost $3 - $15. A two week $200 payday loan could cost as much as $45 if paid on time. If the loan cannot be paid off right away, it has to be renewed. In California, that means the loan principle and interest has to be paid and a new loan created. How many times will a person have to pay $45 to maintain and renew the loan until they can afford to pay it off completely?

Several companies have created alternative credit scoring products based on the analysis of non-traditional data, including rental and bill payment history, insurance payments, debit-card use and public records. They are trying to use this data to predict the payment history of people who don’t have access to traditional credit products that can be tracked through a FICO score.

That is basically what a credit reporting bureau does for people with their credit. It reports the usage of the various forms of credit a person has and tracks the payments made and balances carried. Through a computer algorithm it creates a number that can predict, with fair certainty, the future payment history of an applicant. Those with FICO scores over 740 are more likely to make their payments on time and manage their outstanding balances better than someone with a score of less than 740.

Why do some people want to use alternative credit data? There is a profit motive as vendors can sell more products and services if there is a universe of more qualified buyers. It could also help families struggling with traditional credit by showing their propensity to pay their rent, utility bills, auto insurance, and other regular payments. By using alternative data, lenders stand to reach a large group of potential borrowers about whom they currently have little or no information. For these consumers, alternative credit scores strengthen lenders’ ability to:
-         Reliably rank order risk;
-         Efficiently evaluate applicants for credit or design offers for credit;
-         Increase approval rates while controlling for acceptable levels of risk

Meriwest works exclusively with Experian Credit Bureau. Experian offers various forms of credit reports. We use three specifically:

-         For all auto lending, direct lending to our members and through the Credit Union Direct Lending (CUDL) Network we use the FICO Auto 2 score. This is provided by Experian, and is a variation of the basic FICO score – more heavily weighted to the existence and performance on previous auto loans compared to the traditional FICO score.  This is similar to the “Auto Industry Option Scores” listed below.
-         For our other consumer loans, we use a custom score from Experian called a “Fast Start” score.  It is based on credit and personal characteristics such as their time on the job, how long they have been a member, and other data.
-         We also look at the Experian BK (Bankruptcy) score.  This is a predictor of the applicants likelihood of filing (or needing to file) bankruptcy, and is used as a risk measurement in our analysis.

We don’t use alternative scores, but do tend to look at our borrowers differently than a traditional bank. In a traditional commercial bank, credit score lending is King. If they are looking for a FICO score of 740 or above and that’s where you score, your application has a preliminary approval pending review of debt and income. If your FICO Score comes in less than 740, your application will be declined due to credit. They will take no further action on your behalf outside of sending you the decline letter.

Credit unions, in general, take a more holistic view of their borrowers. Sure, the FICO score is an important part of the loan qualification. Credit Unions would like to see a 740 FICO Score just like the big banks. But if you miss the score by this much (thumb and forefinger showing an inch), you may still qualify for a loan at a credit union. Why? They look at the whole person, not just their credit score. They look at how long you have been employed in the same business or the same employer. How long have you lived in the area? Or at the same home? How long have you been a member of the Credit Union? Have you borrowed from them before? All of these questions go into making the credit decisions. I am not saying that everyone with a less than 740 FICO Score gets a loan. But, if someone misses the target score by ten or twenty points, it is not the end of the loan. Credit Unions can take these questions into consideration and possibly make the loan for them at a slightly higher rate. This is called, Risk Based Pricing. If there is increased risk in lending to someone, say a 720 vs. a 740 FICO Score, we can price our interest rate a little higher accordingly to offset the risk.

Here is a run down of the more common credit scores and alternatives to credit scores:

FICO Score: Created by the Fair Isaac Corporation, FICO is the best-known credit scoring system in the United States. It is a way of measuring an individual's creditworthiness. A FICO score is a quantification of a variety of factors in an individual's background, including a history of default, the current amount of debt, and the length of time that the individual has made purchases on credit. A FICO score ranges between 300 and 850. The higher the score, the more likely that individual will pay their bills in a timely manner.

Vantage Score: A consumer credit rating product developed by three credit rating agencies - Equifax, TransUnion and Experian - as an alternative to the FICO Score. VantageScore uses a different rating scale (501 to 990) than FICO (300 to 850), and is branded as a score that provides lending institutions and banks information related to sub-prime financing. The score is calculated through a weighted average of a consumer's available credit, recent credit, payment history, credit utilization, depth of credit and credit balances.

Auto Industry Option Scores: Auto lenders are unlike other kinds of creditors. Many other creditors look at the entire credit picture to make a decision. However, some auto lenders base their decision solely on how previous auto loans were managed. So, even if your credit scores are bad, if you never missed a car or truck payment or sent one in late, your Auto Industry scores will most likely be higher than the standard FICO scores.

Veritas (by Digital Risk): Most recent alternative; used for home mortgage credit analysis. It Integrates borrower credit characteristics with property and local real estate market data along with proprietary behavioral prediction models. 

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Our next Credit Myths workshop is this Wednesday the 5th of December
Credit Myths and Repair
6:30pm    Wednesday    December 5th 
Meriwest Credit Union Main Office
5615 Chesbro Ave, San Jose CA 95123
Click here to RSVP!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Your FICO Score-Mystery no More!

Is your FICO score a mystery to you? Don’t feel bad, most American consumers don’t know their FICO score much less how it is determined. Generally, your FICO score can vary from 300 at the lowest to a high of 900. People ask me, “Hey, Credit Union Guy, what’s a good credit score?” Today, a good score would be in the neighborhood of 740. At this level you can access good rates on car loans, home financing, and credit cards. Go below 740 and you may find yourself paying higher rates of interest on your loans and credit cards.

“What is a FICO?” FICO is an acronym for the Fair Isaac Company; the company that invented the calculations that result in a measurement of credit risk. The score is determined by an algorithm. In a sense, it is a highly complex algebra problem that takes into account your payment history, the ratio of your loan and card balances vs. your available balances, the length of your credit history, your credit request inquiries and the types of credit you are managing. The formula for exactly how the score is calculated is proprietary information and owned by Fair Isaac.

“Why does the FICO score exist?” In the old days of lending, loan managers looked at the physical credit report for a person and made a judgment call on the risk involved with making a loan to that person. Back then, two loan underwriters might look at the same report and have very different opinions on the applicant’s payment history. Credit Scoring took the judgment call out of the process. A person either scored well or they didn’t. Another reason for FICO score is volume. As our population grew and more people started using banks and credit unions, the loan volume increased significantly. In order to speed the loan process, the FICO score was used. Loan processors can input a minimum of data and get a score for a credit decision rather than reviewing the entire credit report.
Here is an approximate breakdown of how it is determined:
·   35 percent of the score is based on your payment history. This makes sense since one of the primary reasons a lender wants to see the score is to find out if (and how timely) you pay your bills. The score is affected by how many bills have been paid late, how many were sent out for collection, any bankruptcies, etc. When these things happened also comes into play. The more recent, the worse it will be for your overall score.

·   30 percent of the score is based on outstanding debt. How much do you owe on car or home loans? How many credit cards do you have that are at their credit limits? The more cards you have that have maxed out lines, the lower your score will be. The rule of thumb is to keep your card balances at 30% or less of their limits.

·   15 percent of the score is based on the length of time you've had credit. The longer you've had established credit, the better it is for your overall credit score. Why? Because more information about your past payment history gives a more accurate prediction of your future actions.

·   10 percent of the score is based on the number of inquiries on your report. If you've applied for a lot of credit cards or loans, you will have a lot of inquiries on your credit report. These are bad for your score because they indicate that you may be in some kind of financial trouble or may be taking on a lot of debt (even if you haven't used the cards or gotten the loans). The more recent these inquiries are the worse for your credit score. FICO scores only count inquiries from the past year.

·   10 percent of the score is based on the types of credit you have. The number of loans and available credit from credit cards you have makes a difference; installment loans vs. revolving lines of credit. There is no magic number or combination of types of accounts that you shouldn't have. These actually come more into play if there isn't as much other information on your credit report on which to base the credit decision.

Questions? Ask the Meriwest Credit Union Guy at

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The next Meriwest Credit Union Financial Education Workshop will be our Reality Based Budgets Workshop for teens and college students on Wednesday, Nov. 28th at our Monta Loma Financial Center in Mountain View. This workshop takes through a post college money management simulation where they are given a salary, rent, car payments, and other bills and build their living budget. 

Our Monta Loma Financial Center is located at the corner of Rengstorff and Middlefield  Road in the Monta Loma Shopping Center. The program begins at 6pm. We hope you can join us. Please RSVP at our Events Link.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Working on your Home?

You have waited a long time. You worked your way through a recession. Perhaps you have watched your home lose value and slowly regain some it back as our economy has shown signs of improvement. The time has come for you to do some work on your house that has been put off too long.

Renovating the bathrooms and the kitchen in your home can give you some good bang for your buck when it comes to increasing the value of your home. How do we pay for it? One of the best ways is to use your home’s equity to finance that improvement. A Home Equity Line of Credit can be your ticket to a new kitchen. You may be able to deduct the interest on your taxes (check with your tax consultant). 

Here at Meriwest Credit Union, lines up to $250,000 have no application fees nor do they have any third party fees like title costs. Also, interest rates are at their lowest point in years, meaning you can save a lot of money in interest charges. Check our Home Equity Line of Credit Page or contact your local Meriwest Credit Union Financial Services Representative for details. Now let's talk about unlicensed contractors.

Beware of Unlicensed Contractors

It is about this time of year when someone with a pickup truck and a smile may knock on your door, mention something about your house that may need work, and they'll offer to do it at a cost that seems almost too good to be true.

Frequently, they'll tell you they were working in the area anyway, which is part of why the job will be so cheap. But it pays to do a bit of research. Here's why:

Liability. Legitimate businesses carry two kinds of insurance that protects both themselves and you, the customer...
  • Liability insurance. If the contractor or his employees cause damage to your property, or a neighbor's property, they will generally carry insurance or have posted a bond to ensure that they can make good on any damages. Sure, you can file a lawsuit and maybe win a judgment. But having a judgment and collecting on it are two different things. A licensed contractor will generally have enough insurance coverage to ensure you will be made whole in case of any kind of claim.
  • Workers compensation. Unlicensed contractors typically don't provide workers compensation coverage to their workers. Most states require this coverage, which covers any medical costs incurred by workers injured on the job, as well as some disability benefits. If a worker gets injured on the job, and this insurance isn't in place, that worker could sue both the employer and you, the property owner, for damages.
Jail time. It's true: In some jurisdictions, using unlicensed contractors not only jeopardizes your own finances - it's actually a crime.

Scams. Most unlicensed contractors mean to actually do the work. But one common scam goes like this: The scammer will begin work, then asks you for money "to go buy some of the materials they need." Then you give the contractor the money, and you never see them again. Or there may be an injury, for which you as the property owner are expected to provide compensation. The injury could be legit... or it could be part of the scam.

Worse yet, unscrupulous contractors could begin work, tear your roof open, for example, and then demand much more money than agreed upon to close the roof. Had you used a legitimate contractor, you would have recourse to your state licensing boards for unethical work or breaches of contract. Legitimate contractors don't want to lose their license, so they will work very hard to satisfy you as a customer and prevent racking up a track record of complaints.

How to Avoid Them
·        The simplest thing to do is ask for their license number. If they can't give it to you, or claim to be "working under someone else's license," then don't let them touch a thing.
·        Also, ensure the contractor gets a permit for any construction projects or anything that involves digging. Legitimate contractors will normally arrange for the permits themselves.
o       If they ask you to get the permit, consider that a red flag. It may be they are no longer welcome at the permit office - or they don't have the cash to get a permit. Either way, it doesn't bode well. 
·        Ask for references in your area. If the contractor has a good reputation and has provided good value and service to his customers, the contractor will be happy to share his or her references with you. No references? No Job!
·        Don’t forget to check social media like Yelp or traditional rating agencies like the Better Business Bureau. Look for a contractor with good Yelp ratings and no complaints filed at the BBB. That will make your decision a lot easier!

The Bottom Line
Using licensed contractors is a smart move in many ways: It encourages and supports the legitimate, law-abiding businesses in your community. You can generally expect a better quality of work. It encourages employment in your community, as unlicensed contractors are more prone to hire illegal workers. And it protects you against unwanted liability when things don't go as planned. You could be liable if an unlicensed contractor or one of his workers is injured on your property. Licensed, legitimate contractors will have Workman’s Compensation Insurance for him and his crew. In this case, you would not be liable for injuries incurred in the performance of the work on your property. 

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Meriwest Pre-Owned Auto Sale 

November 10-11, 2012

Last Auto Sale of the Year!

Sale Hours:
  • Saturday, November 10: 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
  • Saturday, November 11: 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.

Meriwest Credit Union
5615 Chesbro Avenue
San Jose, CA 95123

Take Advantage of this Event!

  • Rates as low as 1.24% APR offered to qualified members**
  • Over 200 quality pre-owned vehicles
  • Trade-ins welcome
  • Up to 100% financing available on all vehicles for qualified buyers***
  • Loan officials on-site

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Borrowing from your 401(k)-Good idea? Bad idea?

Your 401k is a multifaceted financial tool. Not only can it save you money on taxes as it defers income tax on the money you save for your retirement, it can also play an important role in purchasing a home or even help you get out of debt. Believe it or not, if you are a first time homebuyer, you can draw money from your 401k or Traditional IRA without penalty. That does not mean you won’t pay taxes on what you draw out, it means you won’t have to pay the 10% IRS tax penalty if you draw the funds to purchase a first home.

Not only can you draw on it for a home purchase, you can borrow against it. You can borrow up to $50,000 or half of your 401k, depending on which is less. When you borrow for a home you get a longer pay back period, up to ten years. If for any other use, you will only have five years to repay. The bimonthly payment will be evenly spread out or “amortized” over the time period and will be taken after taxes from your check. The interest you pay gets reinvested in your account. Your money remains in the account working for you. Remember, this is a loan not a withdrawal.

There are advantages and some major disadvantages for borrowing against your 401k for a home purchase:

  • Advantages: The money in your retirement account continues to work for you when you borrow against it. If you withdraw, you lose any shot at future market earnings.

  • There are no tax penalties for taking a loan out on your 401k and repaying it.

  • The interest you pay goes back into your 401k as a contribution for you and is added to your retirement funds.

  • I have never seen a 401k loan show up on a credit report. You are borrowing your own money so it does not count against your FICO score. Borrowing from most consumer sources will have an affect on your credit report and score.

  • Your monthly payment is taken automatically from your paycheck by your employer and credited against your loan by the 401k trustee.

Some Major Disadvantages

  • If you leave your employer early, they will need to pay off your loan from the proceeds of your 401k retirement plan. It does not matter if you quit, are fired or laid off. The 401k trustee will debit the loan payoff amount from your retirement account and pay off the outstanding portion of your loan. This withdrawal will be subject to taxation and Federal IRS early retirement plan withdrawal penalties. You will pay a 10% tax penalty on the amount withdrawn and also be subject to ordinary income taxes on the pay off amount. Depending on where you live, there may also be state taxes and penalties on a withdrawal such as this.

  • For some plans, when you take a loan against your 401k, you may not be able to make contributions for the time your loan is outstanding. Meaning that your retirement savings will stop until your loan is paid off. Check with your trustee for details.

  • You are also repaying part of the loan with money that has already been taxed. As you know, one of the benefits of contributing to a 401k is the fact that the money is invested pre-tax. When you take a loan you aren’t taxed on the proceeds, but the money used to repay the loan has already been taxed so your additional interest going into the account will effectively be taxed twice–at the time of contribution and again when eventually withdrawn from the account in retirement. Ouch!

Most Human Resource professionals will counsel you not to take a loan on your 401k for the very reasons I described above. Not everyone stays at the same employer for 5-10 years. In the U.S., employees tend to last 4.4 years on the job according the Department of Labor Statistics. Younger employees last shorter amounts of time and older employees may stay on longer. The bottom line is that very few Americans remain on the job for the full ten years it takes for one of these loans to mature.  

You need to consider many variables when thinking of taking money from your 401k either as a withdrawal or as a loan. Some of the questions you need to ask are: How much do I need? What is the penalty if I withdraw it? How much are my taxes on that withdrawal? What is my advantage in taking out a 401k loan? How long do I plan to remain at this workplace?    

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Oct. 24th  - 6:30pm
Free Financial Workshop
Credit Myths and Repair
Sunnyvale Financial Center at Fair Oaks and El Camino Real in Sunnyvale. 
RSVP with

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Moving and Credit

There are some things that can happen to our credit when we move and it can be very troubling. Lost or misplaced statements may mean missed bills. On utilities it is not so bad as we typically have a couple of months to pay our cable or water bill. However, our credit runs on a 30 day cycle and missing a payment on a Visa card can hurt our FICO score pretty dramatically. There are some tips below for getting your mail forwarded properly.
When we move, we buy a new home and may go to multiple lenders to access a loan at good terms or we may have multiple inquiries for rental housing. Typically, those multiple inquiries from home lenders will be treated as one inquiry for our scoring. They will appear as multiple inquiries on our credit report and will remain there for two years but only have an effect on our score for one year. Inquiries comprise only about 10% of our total FICO score.

Another thing we do when we move is close accounts. A bank may be a regional bank, but its Visa or Mastercard is accepted worldwide. There is seldom a need to close a VISA or M/C unless the terms are unfavorable. Closing these cards reduces one’s credit score and your borrowing capacity; sometimes eliminating years of experience from a record. Be selective and careful when considering closing a credit card. Consider closing a card if a card has a small line of credit or is related to a regional or specialty store that is not available in your new town.

Clean up your old records before you move. This is a good time to shred old records and prevent ID thieves from getting their hands on them.

Here are some mail forwarding tips:

Before you move:
  1. File your forwarding address with the post office at least two weeks before you move. Not only does this get your bills and statements sent on to your new home it prevents identity theft. Old statements in a mailbox are like candy to an ID thief. The post office will mail a letter to your old address to verify this change.
  2.  While you are at the post office, get a change of address kit from them. Sit down at home that night and send a change of address to every company that sends you a statement or a bill. Some statements only come quarterly so be sure to check. Make sure you have the effective date of your move correctly entered. With some bills, creditors and financial institutions, you may be able to change your address online or over the phone. Note on your list who you called and to whom you sent a notice.
  3. During your move: Ask a neighbor, landlord, or friend to check your mailbox to ensure the forwarding and address changes went thru and pick up any mail that does not get forwarded.
  4. After your move: Contact the new tenants or homeowners and provide them with you contact data in case any of your mail fails to get forwarded in the future. 

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Our next financial workshops are:
Oct. 17th  - 6:30pm
Real World Budgets for Teens and College Students
Sunnyvale Financial Center at Fair Oaks and El Camino Real in Sunnyvale. 
RSVP with

Oct. 24th  - 6:30pm
Credit Myths and Repair
Sunnyvale Financial Center at Fair Oaks and El Camino Real in Sunnyvale. 
RSVP with

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Does Good Debt Exist?

Good debt does still exist. Home debt, if you are not dramatically underwater is still good debt. Please remember that the majority of home owners have seen some degradation of their equity, but most homeowners are not underwater. The generally accepted number is somewhere between 20-25% of all homeowners have a home that is underwater. Most of these were either purchased or refinanced during the recent boom in prices, especially 2005 to 2008. It is a simple truth that 75% or more of all U.S. homeowners are not underwater. Homes purchased today with a reasonable downpayment of 20% or more may have some stagnant price growth in the near term, but historically, owning a home is a sure path to wealth creation. When you consider the tax advantages of owning a home and the increase in value even if it only follows regular inflation rates, new homeowners will incur good debt.

Is college debt good debt? Many are of the opinion that education is important and the resulting debt from financing it is still a good debt. That is provided the student finishes and graduates. Statistics show that lifetime earnings of those with bachelors and masters degrees are substantially higher than those with only a high school education. I have many former college students in my workshops who have not graduated and have substantial student loan debts. Those debts become good debt and will be well worth it when they finish their degrees.

Is all credit card debt bad debt? Not necessarily. Often, young persons will use a credit card like it is going out of style. They will pay for movies, dinners out, concerts, and other fun items with their credit cards. That is some bad debt; debt where you have little or nothing but memories to show for it. I think the responsible use of credit cards is in purchasing assets for your home or car. Use the card for furniture, needed appliances or a major car repair. That way, when you are on your couch writing a check for your Visa card payment, you are sitting on your asset. (A little finance humor.)

Vehicle debt can often be termed good debt. Your car is an economic development vehicle. It gets you to work on time and gets your kids to school. Is spending 2 hours plus on a bus or train daily the best use of your personal time? It is a matter of opportunity cost. How much is your personal time worth?

In the end, I think that the difference between good debt and bad debt is subjective. Our income, education, and cultural background all play a role in how we view the value, really the personal value, of our debt. 

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Our next financial workshop:

Today's Real Estate Market and Tips for Purchasing Foreclosed Property
Saturday, October 13, 2012 - 10:30 a.m.
Chesbro Financial Center, San Jose, CA

Friday, September 28, 2012

Financial Self Defense - ID Theft and Technology

 A recent study put together by The Javelin Group has some disturbing findings: The incidence of identity theft in 2012 was up 13 percent, compared to the previous year. The total amount stolen was about the same, but the thieves successfully scammed more people.
Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn users take heed: The study found that there were specific factors that put social media users at elevated risk of getting scammed:
  • 68 percent of social media users publicly shared their birthday.
  • 63 percent shared the name of their high school.
  • 18 percent shared their phone number.
  • 12 percent shared their pet's name.

All of the above information represents the kinds of things a company would use to verify your identity, according to the study's authors. In some cases, scammers have been known to bluff their way through customer service representatives to get access to other important information - and even wipe out entire accounts. When young or vulnerable people share this information, it could make them more susceptible to stalkers or sexual predators.

The Smartphone Factor
The study also found that smartphone users were a third more likely to be victims of identity theft than non-smartphone users. This doesn't mean, necessarily, that smartphones are to blame. But it does seem to indicate that the people who use smartphones are doing something to make them more vulnerable or attractive to scammers.
What can you do to avoid being a victim?
  • Password protect your phone.
  • Don't use credit cards for Internet transactions over public networks. Thieves have "sniffers" that can extract that data.
  • Don't store credit card numbers or bank account information on your laptop.
  • Use different passwords for mobile banking apps on your phone than passwords you do for your phone and email.
  • Promptly report any suspicion that your sensitive personal information has been compromised.
  • Keep documents that list Social Security numbers off of your laptop, or encrypt that data if you do store there.
  • Keep private information private. If any company uses specific information about you to verify your identity - your mothers' maiden name, pet names, birthdays, etc., keep it off Facebook and any other social media site.

Is your mother on your Facebook page? Does she use her maiden name? You are vulnerable.
Pro tip: If your mother is on your Facebook page, and you share your date of birth, you are a prime candidate for ID theft.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Increase Wealth and Decrease Tax by Planning Your Tax-Deferred Withdrawals

Want to preserve more of your money while decreasing your exposure to tax? The best way to do that is by strategically planning how you withdraw money from your tax-deferred accounts like your 401K’s or Traditional IRA’s.

For most accounts - including savings accounts and investment portfolios - you are required to pay taxes during the year that you receive income (from interest or dividends, for example). But with a tax-deferred account, you put off the payable tax until you withdraw the money from your account. You're not taxed on the money you've earned in the account. Instead, you're taxed on the money you take out of it.

A savvy accountholder will time their withdrawals to reduce the amount of tax they owe and thus increase the amount of money they get to keep. They do this by withdrawing money during a year when their income is low (such as during a period of unemployment or retirement). This puts them into a lower tax bracket so they pay less tax on their withdrawals.

Compare this to someone who is earning six figures and withdraws money from their tax-deferred account. Because they are already in a higher tax bracket, their withdrawal adds more money to their taxable income.

The only time to consider taking the higher taxes is when you can put that money to work in an investment that will earn back far more than you expect to lose from the added tax. But, there are times when we don’t have a choice in taking money out of our retirement accounts. I am referring to the Required Minimum Distribution.

With a Traditional IRA or a 401K, one thing to consider is that at one point in your future, you will have to start taking money out of your retirement fund. This is referred to as the RMD or Required Minimum Distribution. Uncle Sam will not allow us to keep our money earning deferred interest forever! He giveth the tax deferred account and he taketh away our taxes. How? At age 70.5, or seventy and a half, you will be required to take a minimum amount out of your retirement accounts on an annual basis regardless of whether you are retired. How is that amount calculated? Well, the best way to find out your minimum distribution would be to check on IRS Publication 590, “individual Retirement Arrangements” (hard) or you can contact your IRA custodian/administrator and ask them (easy). The RMD rules also are enforced for other retirement plans such as the 403B, SEP IRA’s, and Basic Retirement Plans. Each has very specific rules so contact your retirement custodian/administrator and ask them about your specific situation.

You work hard for your money and saving for the future in a tax-deferred account is smart. Protect your wealth and reduce the taxes you owe by making sure your withdrawals coincide with times when you are in a lower tax bracket.

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Our next Financial Education Workshop will be taking place in our main office next week: 

Sept. 26th 6:30pmCredit Myths and Repair – Learn the top ten myths of credit management, how to access your credit report for free, and how to address information on your reports that is inaccurate, invalid, or out of date. Thousands of South Bay residents have benefitted from this workshop over the past five years. Please contact me to RSVP for the workshop. or 408-365-6328.