By Gunner Glam
A few months back, Studio Brow shared some of the best advice for attaining and saving money since we are always looking for our clients to get the best deal overall.
If there is one thing people are being more conscious and cautious about these days it is money. Here are some additional pointers on how people can conserve and make decisions with their dough thanks to the Wall Street Journal and Real Simple.
Know how much can be spent on what throughout the week. If there is a tight budget, find out how much money has been earned, what needs to be paid and divide up the remaining amount.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, there are some regular money moves that are better done at the beginning of the year rather than the end.
Tap your flex-spend account early
Opticians routinely urge you to spend your unused medical flexible-spending account in December.
That is backward. Start the year with a trip to the eyeglass store for a new pair of spectacles or two.
Your FSA is provided by your employer but funded with your pretax dollars. You elect an amount for the whole year (say, $2,400), but it’s funded through equal payroll contributions throughout the calendar year ($200 a month).
The bonus is that you get to start spending the whole amount (in this case, $2,400) on Jan. 1 as long as it is for eligible medical expenses, like eyeglasses and prescriptions.
If you spend it all by February, then it’s better than a low-interest loan. It’s a no-interest loan and there’s a chance you may not have to “pay it back.”
If you get fired or quit before year-end, in general your employer has lost out, not you. (That’s the way the government set up the rules.)
Make your charitable donations now
Some people wait until December to make charitable donations. The idea is that you have a better handle on how much money you can spare.
That’s upside down.
If giving to charity is important to you, why wait? Write your check now and feel satisfied.
If you are worried whether you will have enough money to live on during the year, then write a smaller check or cut back on other expenses.
You’ll get the same tax deduction making a donation early in the year as you would later, but the charity benefits by having the money sooner.
Contribute to your IRA in the spring
It can be tempting to wait and see what money you have left after Christmas before committing anything to an individual retirement account. Don’t wait. Do it as soon as possible.
If you fund the account early, you will find a way to make your remaining dollars stretch. What’s more, the funds in the account will grow tax free. Any interest you earn outside the IRA will be taxed, so the sooner you get your contribution done the better.
If, like many people, you wait until mid-April to contribute to last year’s plan, then this year make a change. Double down by contributing to both this year’s and last year’s accounts at the same time. You’ll get an extra year of earnings inside your plan.
Don’t wait for your fitness reimbursement
If your employer is generous enough to reimburse all, or part, of your gym membership (and many do), don’t wait until the end of the year to claim your money. In the first place you might forget, and that’s just throwing away money.
In addition, since everyone else mails claims at year-end, it’s more likely that yours will be lost or delayed.
What you should do instead is start the year with an annual fitness membership. You should pay the full amount upfront rather than monthly, you should then get it all reimbursed.
In the winter gyms often offer sales, so you may get a discount as well. And if you get fired before the membership expires, you’ll still have a (paid for) place to exercise.
Don’t wait to take investment losses
Around Christmas time you often hear people talk of the need to make so-called “tax-loss sales” of stocks. The idea is to lock in the loss before year-end so that it can be used to offset taxable investment gains.
The time to ditch a losing investment is when the reasons you originally got into it are no longer valid. For example: You might feel like you made a bad investment if you bought Tiffany last year. Perhaps at the time you thought shoppers would go nuts for luxury goods. Now you could be thinking another stock makes more sense in these austere times, like Wal-Mart.
Well, if that’s what you think, then get out. Take your loss, and use what’s left to choose a better investment.
What you don’t know about credit cards can hurt you so always have the money before charging it.
Make payments within 24 hours or so to avoid racking up interest monthly because even waiting up to 30 days to pay back can still incur interest if other purchases are made.
Use your credit cards.
Because: Paying in cash and rarely using credit cards may be a point of pride for you, but it isn’t a good move for your credit score. As a result of the credit crisis, companies that once would have left inactive accounts open and tried to lure you back are now quick to close “sock drawer” cards.
“Inactive accounts are unprofitable for credit-card companies,” said Liz Pulliam Weston, the author of Your Credit Score (FT Press, $19, amazon.com) and a personal-finance columnist for MSN Money. “Now it’s use it or lose it.”
While you may not mind losing a seldom-used card, there’s more serious fallout: Because 30 percent of your score is based on your debt-to-credit-limit ratio―the gap between what you owe on all credit cards and your total available credit―having one account closed increases that ratio and thus lowers your score.
So use your cards, said Weston: “Regular, responsible use will help to maintain and improve your score.”
“If your card is canceled for nonuse, it’s difficult to get your account reopened. You can try by placing a call to the credit-card company and highlighting your stellar payment history,” said Sheri L. Stuart, education manager for Springboard Nonprofit Consumer Credit Management, in Riverside, California. “But you will have to go through the application process again.”
Pay off the lowest-balance credit card first.
Because: If you’re feeling overwhelmed by credit-card debt, you may find it hard to stay motivated to keep up a serious repayment effort. While paying off the highest-interest card first will save you the most money in the end, the boost you get from quickly knocking off the lowest-balance card may be more instrumental in keeping you on track.
Instead of spreading your monthly payments equally among credit cards, “snowball” your debt, advised Lisa Ray, a financial-education specialist at the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Atlanta.
With this method, you pay down the lowest-balance card first and pay minimum balances on the rest; as each card is paid off, apply the money you would have paid on it to the next-lowest-balance card, and so on.
Pay annual fees on a rewards card.
Because: There are plenty of rewards cards out there that don’t charge annual fees, but paying one can make sense.
In the end, a card with a fee and good benefits that suit your lifestyle may save you much more than a no-fee card you’ll use less.
In weighing a card’s merits, try to project which benefits you’re more likely to use in a year.
If the rewards such as free hotel nights, discounted movie tickets or cash back into your child’s college savings account, total more than the card’s annual cost―and more than what you would save with a no-fee card―it is worth the expense.
Don’t consolidate credit-card balances on an introductory interest-free card.
Because: “Balance transfers can work in your favor if the interest you save outweighs the transfer fees,” said Leslie McFadden, a credit columnist for the web site, Bankrate.com. Otherwise, when the low introductory rate goes up, possibly to more than that of the card you’re transferring the debt from, you may end up paying more interest than you would have on the original card.”
She said, “You also have to be careful that you’re not running up so much of the new card’s credit limit that it’s hurting your score.”
“Consolidating multiple balances on a lower-limit card,” Weston explained, “can make it look to the credit bureau like you’re close to maxing out that second card (using most of your available credit limit), which is frowned upon.”
Don’t close cards once they are paid off.
Because: Fifteen percent of your score is determined by the length of time you’ve had credit.
By closing your oldest account, you can shorten the length of your credit history, which can deal a blow to that part of the formula.
Don’t max out one card (say, a rewards card), then pay the full balance every month.
Because: You don’t get any points on your credit score for paying off the balance.
In fact, credit bureaus don’t even consider it. More important, maxing out one card, even if you never carry a balance or pay interest, raises your debt-to-credit-limit ratio as bureaus consider individual cards’ ratios as well as your total ratio.
For example, if you charge $4,000 of your $5,000 limit, you’re using 80 percent of your available credit. “Keep balances as low as possible,” McFadden advises. “Using less than 30 percent of your credit limit is a good goal. The higher your balance climbs, the greater the damage to your score.”
Don’t open retail-card accounts.
Because: Twenty percent off a new pair of jeans isn’t worth the potential damage that opening a store card can do to your credit score.
First, five points are deducted for each new retail or gas card.
Second, you’re lowering the average age of your credit history. Third, these cards tend to have lower limits and higher interest rates―sometimes 20 percent or more.
Finally, running up balances on low-limit store cards affects your credit score more negatively than does using one or two bank cards, since bank cards’ higher credit limits increase your debt-to-credit-limit ratio.
Don’t pay off credit-card debt with a secured loan, such as a home-equity line of credit.
Because: Doing so may seem like a good idea, since the interest rate can be lower and you can consolidate your debts and make just one monthly payment instead of monitoring several cards.
But by rolling credit-card balances into a home-equity loan, you are essentially converting unsecured debt into secured debt, says Ray.
You’ll be putting your house up as collateral for the new television set or laptop that you charged.
If you can’t make your payments for any reason, debt collectors can seize your property.
-More coming soon from Studio Brow-