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4 “Smart” Credit Card Moves that are Actually Dumb

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Used wisely, credit cards can help build your credit score and earn you sweet perks. But to get smart about the plastic in your wallet, you have to shake free from common myths that can actually tank your score or cost you unnecessary money. 

1. YOU RELY EXCLUSIVELY ON A DEBIT CARD.

The perks of debit are clear: It’s harder to overspend than if you use a credit card, and you can’t work yourself into a mountain of debt. That debt aversion might explain why those of us who got our financial footing during the Great Recession are more leery of credit than other generations: According to a Bankrate survey, two-thirds of people ages 18 to 29 don’t have a credit card, compared with only one-third of people over 30.

“But it’s dangerous to assume that all plastic is treated the same way by credit reporting and scoring agencies,” says credit expert John Ulzheimer, who spent years at FICO and Equifax. “Only credit cards make it onto your credit report, so if you avoid them you’re really not doing anything to help your credit score or establish your credit report.”

Even if you don’t plan to apply for a car loan or mortgage anytime soon, when you are ready to apply, those lenders will factor the age of your credit report into their decision. Opening a credit card in your 20s will mean you have a more, ahem, mature credit report than if you open one in your 30s, which can help you get a better or bigger loan—even if your finances are otherwise unchanged.

The Truly Smart Move: Go ahead and apply for a credit card (free services like Credit Karma can help you determine the appropriate card). If you’re worried the new piece of plastic will tempt you to splurge beyond your means, don’t keep it in your wallet. 

2. YOU CARRY A SMALL BALANCE EACH MONTH.

Credit scoring agencies want to see that you’re using your credit cards regularly, because that signals that you can responsibly handle the credit available to you. But somehow that truth morphed into a widespread myth that you shouldn’t pay your bill in full.

“Carrying a balance from month to month will just cost you interest and won’t help your credit score,” says Bethy Hardeman, chief consumer advocate at Credit Karma. In fact, it could hurt it, because lenders look at how the amount of your current balances compares with your total credit card limits. The lower the balance, the better.

So how do you prove regular use and earn your financial brownie points? Relax—credit card companies do the work for you. When you swipe your way to a $200 balance on your Visa, the company reports that amount to the credit reporting agencies at the same time that it issues you a bill. You can then pay that balance (in full!). And keep in mind that regular use doesn’t mean you have to use the card monthly or hit a certain spend threshold. Modest use every couple of months works just fine.

The Truly Smart Move: Set a calendar reminder so you pay your balance in full and on time to avoid getting hit with late fees. And if you find that “regular use” is turning into “regular splurges,” use your card to set up auto-pay on a boring bill instead. It’s tougher to be tempted to go on an electricity spree.

3. YOU DECLINE A CREDIT LIMIT INCREASE.

When Visa mails you an offer to increase the credit limit on one of your cards, you demur. Time for a pat on the back, right? Not quite. When FICO determines your credit score, one of the biggest numbers it looks at is your revolving utilization. Also known as credit card usage percentage or balance-to-limit ratio, this is basically a fancy way of saying how much you owe on your credit cards compared with how much your total limits are. “If you owe $500 on a card with a $500 limit, you’ll have a lower score than someone who owes $500 on a card with a $5,000 limit,” says Ulzheimer. 

To calculate your current revolving utilization, divide your balance by the credit card limit and multiply by 100. Quick example: If you owe $1,000 on a card with a limit of $2,500, your revolving utilization of that card is 40 percent. While 40 percent might sound boss at first blush, consider that consumers with the highest credit scores tend to have revolving utilizations under 10 percent.

One way to better your revolving utilization is to pay down your balances. But another is to increase the credit limits on existing cards. So the next time MasterCard extends an offer, think twice before you decline.

The Truly Smart Move: Many credit card companies will reassess your limit every three years or so, when they reissue your credit cards. But you can also proactively ask for an increase. You’re more likely to secure a higher limit if you’re a low-risk consumer: You use your cards regularly and pay your bill on time. 

4. YOU CANCEL SOME OF YOUR CREDIT CARDS.

Maybe your wallet is crazy cluttered with a million cards and you’re looking to streamline. Or maybe you’re sick of all the temptation that comes with having multiple cards. Or maybe you think having one card is safer when it comes to identity theft. No matter what your motivation, closing a credit card will ding your credit score, because it reduces your revolving utilization.

“Never, ever close a credit card,” says Ulzheimer. “The only time a card should be considered for the chopping block is if it has a huge annual fee and you’re planning to never use it again.” It’s especially worth waiting, he says, if you plan to apply soon for any type of credit, including an auto loan or student loan.

As for identity theft, keep in mind that if your account info is somehow stolen, all four of the major credit card networks offer total fraud liability. That means, if you spot a suspicious charge on your statement and you report it to the credit card company, you’ll pay nada.

The Truly Smart Move: The best way to kill both clutter and temptation—without wounding your credit score—is to shred the plastic you don’t want to use anymore. If you ever decide to start using that particular credit card again, you can put in a call to the company and have the card reissued at no expense.

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California Startup Pays Users to Consume Less Energy
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You may know that turning off the lights when leaving a room or lowering the thermostat before bed are smart habits, but with no way to see their immediate impact, they can be hard to keep. OhmConnect is built around the premise that more people would follow through with these actions if they had a little motivation. As Fast Company reports, the San Francisco-based startup rewards California residents for their green choices with real cash.

The mission of the company is to prevent energy grids from using costly and dirty emergency power plants by encouraging customers to conserve power when demand outweighs supply. During “OhmHours,” users receive a text suggesting energy-saving practices. They can choose to opt out or agree to make an effort to lower their consumption. If their usage in the next hour is lower than the average for their home on that type of day (weekdays are compared to the weekday average; weekends to the weekend average) they receive points which can be redeemed for money. The more people participate on a regular basis, the more points they’re able to earn.

Participants in homes equipped with smart devices like a Nest thermostat or Belkin smart switches can program them to automatically consume less during those times. Nearly a fifth of the user base chooses some type of automatic response.

Someone living in a small apartment participating once a week has the potential to make $40 to $50 a year, while a family living in a larger home can earn up to $200. The California energy grid has also reaped the benefits: Since launching in 2014, OhmConnect has saved the state a total of 100 megawatts (the equivalent of not running two emergency power plants at high-demand times). California residents who get their energy through Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison, or San Diego Gas & Electric can sign up to participate online. If you don’t live in the state but are interested in the service, you may get a chance to try it out soon: OhmConnect plans to expand to Texas, Toronto, and potentially the East Coast.

[h/t Fast Company]

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11 Secrets of Financial Planners
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You share your darkest money secrets with your financial planner. You even tell him about the time you spent your last pennies at Starbucks, because without caffeine, how could you work? This is the person who is supposed to sort out your life so that you can buy everything your heart desires, after all—or so we want to believe. We found out whether financial planners judge your shoe-buying habit, whether they get mad if they have to repeat themselves time and time again (we hear what we want to hear), and why they don’t always follow their own advice.

1. SOMETIMES, THEY GET A LITTLE ANNOYED WITH YOU.

“I grimace when friends or clients get involved with multi-level marketing endeavors, thinking it’s a quick way to make money,” says Quentara Costa, a certified financial planner in Massachusetts. These MLMs, including LuLaRoe, Matilda Jane, and others, rarely last more than a year, but according to Costa, the outlay of funds and time you pour into developing and understanding the product could have been better spent pursuing other means of career development. “While well-intentioned, it’s my least favorite method of supplementing income because it can take years to develop business and trust within the community, as with any business venture,” he explains.

2. THEY DON’T ALWAYS APPROVE OF YOUR CAR-BUYING WAYS.

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Meghan Chomut, a certified financial planner in Thunder Bay, Ontario, says she can’t stand it when her clients overspend on vehicles. She even has a golden rule about it: The total value of all your vehicles and motorized toys shouldn’t add up to more than half of your annual income.

3. BUT THEY UNDERSTAND THAT YOU’RE GOING TO FORGET ABOUT SAVING MONEY DURING YOUR VACATIONS.

This is the time when clients tend to go off the rails, says Bill Ryon, co-founder and managing partner of the Dover, Delaware-based Compass Investment Advisors. Whenever Ryon sees clients taking distributions that are larger than what’s called for within their financial savings plan, he knows that they’re going on an international trip. “It can be a little bit of a sensitive conversation, since it is their money and I want them to enjoy themselves," he says, "however not at the expense of derailing their plan or jeopardizing their lifestyle in the future."

4. THEY BLAME YOLO.

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“If you can’t afford it, you shouldn’t do it,” Chomut says. “But then #YOLO, and all of a sudden, you’ve booked a trip to Florida. Or #FOMO you are going out to eat at a fancy restaurant with friends and putting it on a credit card," she says. "The struggle is real.”

5. THEY TOTALLY EXPECT TO REPEAT THEIR ADVICE OVER AND OVER AGAIN.

Warren Ward, senior planner with WWA Planning and Investments in Indiana, says that many years ago, his doctor told him that about half the medical issues he dealt with in his practice were optional: people overate, refused to exercise, or smoked. But they still wanted their doctor to keep them healthy. “He responded by repeating his good advice, and making medical interventions when appropriate,” Ward says. “Just like that physician, we care about our clients, and will patiently repeat our advice at every visit, knowing from experience that people can change over time and become more financially healthy.”

6. EVERY FINANCIAL PLANNER HAS THEIR OWN FINANCIAL TRICKS TO PASS ON.

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Ward is a huge fan of the “cash envelope system,” he says. Basically, you map out your spending for the week, and put that amount of cash into an envelope. “Mapping out your spending for the week allows you to know where your money goes instead of wondering where it went,” he says.

7. SOME WANT YOU TO FOCUS ON THE BIGGER PICTURE ...

“The secret is that all retirement planning is income planning and everything else is detail,” Ryon says. “I’ll have to repeat that several times, but that’s it. It helps them to focus on what’s really important and what they are planning for.” Essentially, he says, you’re saving and investing to sustain your lifestyle for at least 30 years after you retire. So if you focus on the fact that all of your retirement planning is income planning, then you’ll be able to think of your money as a machine that’ll pay the bills once you stop working.

8. ... OTHERS WANT YOU TO THINK ABOUT EVERY DOLLAR YOU SPEND.

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The key is to make a budget every single month, Chomut says. “Every dollar overspent is a dollar you have to either work harder for tomorrow, or a sacrifice you’ll have to make later.”

9. THEY DON’T ALWAYS FOLLOW THEIR OWN ADVICE ...

Ward says that the most difficult part of financial planning is convincing his clients to plan for death. That means setting aside money for the kids’ education and naming a close friend or relative as a potential guardian for those children ... just in case. “Just like my clients, I’m slow to face updating my estate planning documents,” Ward says. We don’t blame him!

10. ... BUT THEY STILL WISH YOU WOULD TRUST THEM ...

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“In our modern age of 24/7 news coverage, I think people tend to put too much emphasis on interpreting the latest headline, and then trying to act tactically in response,” Ward says. “Whether this involves making an investment decision based on world affairs, or following the weather minute-by-minute prior to a vacation, we prefer that they think strategically, formulate a plan and stick to it—of course allowing for periodic review and adjustment.”

11. ... BECAUSE AT THE END OF THE DAY, THEY’RE THE EXPERTS.

“I struggle watching one of a couple—usually the husband—claiming expertise that’s actually incomplete,” Ward says. After all, he doesn’t brag about medicine when he goes to the doctor, nor does he claim knowledge of the law if he visits a lawyer. “I try not to be judgmental, but this is an area where I struggle,” he says.

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