Should I Buy Out My Lease?

Q: My lease agreement is nearing its end, and I’m getting many offers to buy out my lease due to the current state of the economy. Should I ignore the hype, or is it really a good idea to buy out my lease?

A: With cars in hot demand, and selling at all-time high prices, many lease customers are looking at trade-in values for their vehicles with the intention of buying out their lease. While this can be a smart choice for many consumers, it’s important to consider all relevant factors before making a decision. Here’s what you need to know about buying out your lease.

What is a lease buyout?

Many drivers are confused by the offers they’re getting and the promotions they’ve seen for buying out leases. How is it possible to buy a lease when a leased vehicle, by definition, is essentially a rented car?

First, buying out a lease involves paying the car’s “buyout price” as specified in the lease contract, which makes you the car’s new owner. Second, it’s important to establish that buying out a lease generally makes the most sense when you are nearing the end of your lease term.   Finally, this may necessitate taking out an auto loan to afford the buyout price, just like you might do when purchasing a new or used car at a dealership.  

How can I determine my car’s buyout price?

To estimate how much you’d need to pay to buy your leased car, look for the term “residual value” in your lease contract. This tells you what your leased vehicle is expected to be worth at the end of the term, which may be months or years away. To reach your vehicle’s buyout price, add the residual value to any remaining payments. For example, if your car’s residual value is $25,000 and you owe another 10 payments of $500, the car’s buyout price is $30,000. Of course, the more time left on your lease, the higher price you can expect to pay to buyout.

Will I need to pay any fees in addition to the buyout price?

Depending on your home state, your vehicle’s buyout price may be subject to an auto sales tax. Your lender may also charge additional fees, such as a ‘purchase option fee’. It’s important to know about any additional fees you may need to pay in addition to the buyout price and to 

estimate the total you’ll be paying before deciding to purchase a leased car.

The good news is that you won’t be accountable for the typical lease-end fees, which can include the costs of reconditioning the vehicle for resale, fixing any damage the car may have incurred during your term, and an over-mileage penalty for every mile you may have driven over the official limit.  

What are the advantages of buying out a lease?

Many drivers are opting to buy their leased vehicles now due to the current state of the auto industry. Supply is low and both new and used cars are in high demand. A driver nearing the end of their lease agreement may find it challenging to purchase or lease another car. Buying a car you already lease will give you first dibs at a hot commodity.  

Some drivers are choosing to capitalize on the high demand for used cars by buying out their leases and then flipping the car to a dealership or selling it privately to a new owner. They assume they will earn enough from the sale to help offset the price of a new car. While this may be true, it’s important to remember that it may be difficult to find a new car in a desired model and at an affordable price.

Before taking out a loan to buy out a lease, find out what your car is actually worth. Due to the state of the market, it’s likely worth more than you’ll pay. However, if it’s worth less than the buyout price, you’ll be upside-down on your loan, which is never a good idea. In addition, you may find it difficult to qualify for a loan in an amount that is higher than the value of the asset.  

How do I buy out my lease?

If you decide to go ahead and buy out your lease, you’ll first need to run the numbers as described above to be sure it’s a financially responsible decision. When you have the total buyout price, your next step is to work on financing. You can choose to take out an auto loan or a personal loan to help cover the costs. 

Next, you’ll contact the company behind your lease and complete the purchase. The sale process will be similar to the sale of any car. Finally, be sure to notify your insurance company about the change in ownership of your vehicle. Leases generally require plans with low deductibles and high premiums, so you may want to choose a new plan with higher deductibles and lower monthly premiums.

If you’re looking to finance an auto loan for a lease buyout car, look no further than Advantage One Credit Union! Our auto loans offer low interest rates [see for current rates], easy payback terms and a quick approval process. Call, click or stop by to get started or discuss available options!

Your Turn: Have you bought your leased car? Tell us about your experience in the comments. 

How does a Rising Interest Rate Environment Affect the Economy?

Q: I’ve heard that the Fed plans to raise the interest rate this year. How will this impact the economy and the current inflation rates? 

A: The rising inflation rate, once determined to be a transitory and natural consequence of pandemic lockdowns, now appears to be here to stay, given that headlines announced a 7% increase in the consumer price index (CPI) in the beginning of 2022. To help control prices, the Federal Reserve will likely increase interest rates this year, possibly up to four times in total. 

Let’s take a deeper look at what the current economic circumstances mean for the average consumer as well as steps you can take to protect your investments and manage your money in the most optimal manner. 

What is the Fed and what purpose does it serve?

The Federal Reserve, also known as the Fed, is the central bank of the United States. Its purpose is to keep the U.S. economy operating at optimal efficiency. The Fed primarily focuses on employment and inflation. To prevent the Fed from gaining too much power, it has a system of checks in place, including the following: 

  • A Board of Governors that is independent of the federal government
  • Twelve semi-independent Federal Reserve Banks, each of which represent a particular geographic area of the U.S. and are the operating arms of the Fed
  • The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), consisting of 12 people

To help the country maintain maximum employment levels and stability in prices, the FOMC votes on whether their current target range for the monetary policy rate is appropriate for the contemporary economic climate. This target rate, also known as the Federal Funds rate, is the rate at which financial institutions, like banks and credit unions, lend money to each other. As a general rule, if inflation is rising, the Fed will raise its interest rates to contain it. On the flip side, if the economy is heading toward a recession, the Fed will lower the interest rate to help promote lending and economic activity. 

What happens when the Fed raises interest rates?  

When the Fed increases interest rates, as it plans to do this year, financial institutions raise their rates as well. Consequently, the cost of borrowing money becomes higher and consumers are more hesitant to take out large loans. This may discourage people from buying homes, cars and launching new businesses. Conversely, it encourages more people to save as the savings rates offered by banks and credit unions will typically increase, too. These factors mean less money is circulating in the economy, which will hopefully reduce the level of inflation. 

How does a rising rates environment impact the stock market?

Unfortunately, there’s no way to predict how the stock market will react to an increase in interest rates. The market’s volatile nature means there’s no direct correlation between its performance and the Fed’s rate. In general, though, rising interest rates is not good news to stock investors since it means companies will be hesitant to borrow the capital they need to grow their businesses. This will likely result in lower revenues and smaller returns for investors. However, certain sectors, like financial institutions, may benefit from an increased interest rate. 

How does a rising rates environment affect the value of bonds?

The price of bonds is inversely related to interest rates. This means an increase in interest rates will cause an equivalent drop in the price of bonds. The price drop is caused by newer bonds on the market, which offer higher coupon rates, or the ratio between the interest the bond pays and its price, to reflect the recently increased interest rates. 

How do I manage my finances in a rising rates environment?

The average consumer has been hit hard by the increased prices of everything from gas to groceries over the past year. There’s good news ahead for the struggling consumer, as the anticipated increases in interest rates are expected to help tame inflation. However, there are other steps you may want to take to protect your investments and manage your money as rates increase:

  • Stay calm and ignore the news. Alarming headlines get the most clicks, but stock market news nearly always sounds more distressing than it actually is. It’s rarely a good idea to liquidate a stock based on headlines alone. In addition, long-term growth can usually make temporary losses obsolete. 
  • Plan ahead. As always, it’s best to have savings set aside for any economic circumstance. If you don’t already have one, build an emergency fund of at least 3-6 months’ worth of living expenses to prepare for any economic reality. As a bonus, beefing up your savings when interest rates are rising means giving your money a better chance at growth. 
  • When in doubt, seek professional advice. If market news takes an especially disturbing turn, you may want to seek the counsel of a financial advisor for the best steps to take with your investments. Rebalancing your portfolio with a new asset allocation can help your investments maintain peak performance levels even during a rising rates environment. 

Interest rates will likely be going up soon as the Fed tries to control rampant inflation. Use the tips outlined here and consider the steps you may want to take with your finances. 

Your Turn: How are you preparing financially for the expected interest hike? Tell us about it in the comments. 

What’s the Difference Between a Conventional Mortgage and a Construction Loan

Q: I’m looking to buy a new home or to build the home of my dreams, and for either option I’ll need a loan. It has me wondering; what’s the difference between a conventional mortgage and a construction loan?

A: Traditional mortgages allow a buyer to borrow the funds they need to purchase a new home, and construction loans provide borrowers with access to funds as needed while building a home. Of course, there are nuances, so let’s take a deeper look at the key differences between traditional mortgages and construction loans.

How long does each loan last?

Conventional mortgages are long-term loans that borrowers pay back for years after the starting date, or origination, of the loan. A typical mortgage has a 30-year term, during which the borrower must repay the principal loan amount as well as the interest charges. Some mortgages have 15-year terms, and others can have a payback term of 10 or 20 years, among others. 

On the flip side, construction loans are short-term loans that have a payback term of just one year or less. This means the borrower is not stuck making payments on the loan for years, or even decades. However, since the entire loan must be repaid within the year, monthly payment amounts can be significantly higher than traditional mortgage payments. 

Do conventional mortgages and construction loans have similar interest rates?

Interest rates on conventional mortgages and construction loans fluctuate along with the Prime Rate. However, in general, interest rates on construction loans tend to be higher than interest rates on mortgages. The higher rates provide protection for the lender, who is taking a bigger risk with the construction loan than they do with a conventional mortgage. 

What is the approval process like for each type of loan?

To get approved for a conventional mortgage, you’ll need a decent credit score (generally 620 or higher), a strong credit history, proof of income and a downpayment that is equal to at least 5% of the total loan amount. Most lenders can get borrowers pre-approved for a mortgage in just a few days, but the actual approval process for a mortgage averages 30-50 days

Conversely, approval for a construction loan can be quicker, but more comprehensive. The lender will usually ask to see details about the planned construction project, including a timetable, a budget and possibly a blueprint or rendering of the intended work. They may also inquire about the hired contractor for the project to verify that you are using a licensed and experienced worker. 

In many ways, though, approval for a construction loan is just like approval for a traditional mortgage. You’ll need to have a credit score of at least 620 and proof of income. You’ll also need a downpayment that is equal to at least 20% of the total loan amount. 

How are the funds paid out in each type of loan?

One of the key differences between a construction loan and conventional mortgage is the way the funds are distributed. In a mortgage, the entire loan amount is paid out in one lump sum as the borrower takes out the loan. This enables the borrower to purchase their new home immediately upon approval. 

A construction loan works differently. Instead of the loan being paid in one lump sum at the onset, funds are paid out in “draws,” or phases, as the construction project progresses. For example, funds may be paid out when each of these stages in the project are reached: 

  • Delivering the final plans for the home
  • Obtaining permits 
  • Completing the foundation
  • Framing out the home
  • Installing all drywall, siding, windows and doors
  • Installing HVAC systems, electricity and plumbing
  • Installing interior trims, cabinets, countertops and flooring
  • Substantial completion of the home
  • Final completion of the home

If you’re in the market for a new home or you plan on building a home in the near future, you may need to take out a mortgage or a construction loan. [Fortunately, you can take out either kind of loan at Advantage One Credit Union. Our loans offer competitive interest rates, easy payback terms, and a quick approval process for our members. Call, click, or stop by today to get started!] 

Whether you choose to build or move into an existing home, best of luck in taking the next steps toward the home of your dreams.  

Your Turn: Have you taken out a construction loan and/or a conventional mortgage? Tell us how they differed in the comments. 

What are the Tax Benefits of Owning a Home

Q: I’m in the market for my first home, and I’m trying to get a complete picture of how owning a home will affect my finances. What are the tax benefits of owning a home?  

A: Owning a home can provide you with significant tax benefits. It’s important to learn how home ownership can impact your taxes so you know which home-related expenses to claim on your returns for maximizing your savings potential. 

Before we explore the specifics, let’s review how an income tax deduction works. A deduction reduces your taxable income by a percentage, which depends on your tax bracket. You can choose to take the standard deduction ($12,550 for individuals filing as single taxpayers, or $25,100 for married couples filing jointly) or to itemize your deductions, which involves listing each eligible deduction separately. After adding up the total of your itemized deductions, you’ll multiply that amount by your tax bracket for your total deduction. 

With this understanding, let’s take a deeper look at the tax benefits of owning a home. 

Tax benefits of buying a home

Purchasing a home offers the buyer several tax benefits. 

First, with the exception of very large loans, you can generally deduct the cost of the points you paid when securing your mortgage. If you’ve refinanced your original mortgage and paid points when taking out your new loan, the cost of these points can be deducted as well. 

Second, if you are an active-duty member of the armed services, you may be able to deduct your moving expenses from your taxable income. However, this tax perk is limited to active servicepeople who need to move because of a permanent change of station due to a military order. 

Tax benefits of owning a home  

There are multiple ongoing tax benefits to owning a home:

  • Mortgage interest deduction. Most homeowners can deduct the interest payments they make on their mortgage from their taxable income. There may be limits on how much you can deduct, which is dependent on how large your loan is. 
  • Real estate taxes. The money you pay in property taxes is deductible from your taxable income. If you pay through a lender escrow account, you’ll find the tax amount on your 1098 form. If you pay your taxes directly to your municipality, use your personal records, such as a copy of a check or automatic transfer, as proof. 
  • Private mortgage insurance (PMI). If you took out a loan that was equal to less than 20% of the home’s value, you may be able to deduct your PMI payments from your taxable income. This deduction depends on your adjusted gross income (AGI): If you’re single and your AGI is less than $50,000, you’re eligible for the PMI deduction. For married couples filing jointly, the threshold is $100,000. Once you’ve reached the max income allowed for the PMI deduction, the amount you can deduct begins to phase out.  
  • Home equity debt. If you’ve taken out a home equity loan or home equity line of credit against your home, the interest payments on these loans can be deducted from your taxable income, as long as the loan is used, in the words of the IRS, “to buy, build or substantially improve the taxpayer’s home that secures the loan.”
  • Home office expenses. If you use a part of your home exclusively for work purposes, you may be able to deduct related expenses.

Are there any tax credits available for homeowners? 

Unlike a tax deduction, a tax credit directly lowers your tax bill, dollar for dollar. You may be eligible for a mortgage credit if you were issued a qualified Mortgage Credit Certificate (MCC) by a state or local governmental unit or agency under a qualified MCC program. In addition, depending on your home state, you may be able to claim a credit for a percentage of the costs of buying and installing items that help your home harness renewable energy, such as solar panels or geothermal heat pumps. 

Home ownership comes with many advantages, some of which include tax benefits. Keep that in mind as you explore your options, and as with all tax advice, please remember to consult a tax professional for the most current and accurate laws.

Your Turn: How has home ownership benefitted your taxes? Tell us about it in the comments. 

Should I Buy or Lease a Car Now?

Q: It’s no secret that the semiconductor chip shortage is driving up the price of both new and used cars, but I do need a new set of wheels. Am I better off buying or leasing a car now? 

A: The chip shortage and other factors relating to the pandemic and inflation have created a tight auto loan market, the likes of which haven’t been seen in years. 

As a result, finding a new or used car that meets your criteria is challenging in today’s market. Unfortunately, though, leases have also risen in price and there is limited availability among many models. 

If you need a new car right now, what’s your best choice? 

Let’s take a deeper look at buying and leasing a car, paying particular attention to factors that are unique to today’s market, to help you determine which option makes the most sense for you. 

Buying a car in 2021

If you choose to buy a new or used car, you’re looking at inflated prices and a supply shortage that’s been ongoing for months. Expect to pay approximately $40,000 for a new car and $23,000 for a used car, according to Edmunds.com. You’re also unlikely to get the service you may be used to getting at a dealership since salespeople likely have more customers than they can serve at present. This can translate into reluctance to move on the sticker price and in a delayed processing of a car purchase. 

Leasing a car in 2021

The leasing market has not been spared the after-effects of the chip shortage and resultant lag in supply of new vehicles. Many lease companies are struggling to service customers while facing a shortage in available cars. The rising prices have hit this market, too. 

If you’re nearing the end of a lease, you may be in luck. Auto dealerships are in desperate need of cars to sell, and they may offer to buy out your lease at an inflated price, leaving you with extra cash to finance your next car. The dealer pays the leasing company what you owe, and gives you a check for the remaining equity. Of course, you’ll also be facing high prices, but it may be worth getting a head-start on your purchase. 

Buying VS. leasing

In every market, there are some drivers who are better suited toward owning a car and others who benefit more from leasing. Here are some important factors to consider when making this decision: 

  • How long do you hold onto your cars? If you like to swap in your cars for a newer model every few years, a lease may be a better fit for your lifestyle. On the flip side, if you tend to hold onto your cars for many years, consider buying a car instead. 
  • Insurance costs. Leases require full insurance coverage, which can be pricey. When you own your vehicle, though, the amount of insurance coverage beyond what is required by law is your decision. If you like having full protection, including GAP insurance, which pays the difference between what you owe on a car and its true value if it’s totaled in an accident or stolen, a lease may be a better choice for you. If, however, you tend to purchase just minimum coverage, you may be better off purchasing your vehicle. 
  • Mileage. If you usually put more than 10,000 miles on your car each year (the standard amount allowed by most leasing companies before charging extra), you may be better off buying a car. Keep in mind, though, that you’ll still need to pay for those miles in depreciation costs of the car. 
  • Maintenance costs. When you lease a car, most maintenance costs are on the leasing company. You’ll need to spring for anything related to wear and tear of the vehicle, but most other repairs will be covered. You’ll also have the option to pay extra for tire protection, and dent and scratch insurance. 

When you own your car, you’ll be footing the bill for all these costs, plus any maintenance needs. To minimize these costs, don’t finalize a car purchase without first ensuring it’s in good working order. You can do this by using its VIN (vehicle identification number) to look up its history and by having it professionally inspected by a mechanic.

While individual circumstances vary, in general, you can expect the cost of purchasing and leasing a vehicle to break even at the three-year mark. While a lease may offer you cheaper monthly payments, you’ll likely earn back two-thirds of the price you paid on a car if you sell it after three years. 

Today’s auto loan market makes every decision challenging. If you’re choosing between buying or leasing a car, be sure to weigh all variables carefully before making your decision. 

Your Turn: Do you buy or lease your cars? Which factors drive that decision? Tell us about it in the comments. 

The Beginner’s Guide to Credit Cards

Credit cards! Can’t live with them, can’t live without them. According to the latest report by the Federal Reserve, there’s a whopping $790 billion in credit card debt in the U.S. On the flip side, though, opening credit cards and managing them responsibly is crucial to establishing your credit history, which impacts your eligibility and rates for large, low-interest loans.

Here’s all you need to know about credit cards.

How credit cards work

When you use a credit card to pay for a purchase, you’re borrowing money from the financial institution that issues the credit card. You’ll repay the loan, in part or in full, at the end of the month when the bill is due. The credit card company charges interest, or a percentage of your balance, which you’ll pay if you don’t pay off your bill by its due date. This number is determined by your annual percentage rate (APR), which refers to the annual cost of borrowing money with your credit card. The longer you carry a balance, the more the amount interest will accrue. 

Now, let’s take a deeper look at each step in responsible credit card management. 

Applying for a credit card

First, you’ll need to apply for a credit card. If this is your first card, you’re probably best off applying for a secured credit card. These starter cards require you to make a deposit before you can open the line of credit that establishes the loan that’s attached to the card. The deposit will serve as a form of collateral in case of a missed payment or default. Usually, secured credit cards will only offer a modest line of credit. If you make your payments on time, you’ll get the deposit back after a predetermined amount of time, usually eight to 12 months, at which point you can close the account and open an unsecured credit card (which does not require the deposit to serve as collateral). 

As you consider your credit card options, look no further than your local credit union. As member-owned cooperatives, credit unions consistently offer credit cards with lower interest rates than credit cards issued by big banks, with the most recent data showing the average credit union credit card offering interest rates at 11.22%APR compared to the average bank’s credit card offering interest rates at 12.41%APR. You can also expect more personalized member service when working with a credit union.

It’s important to note that many credit unions include clauses in their credit card terms allowing them to withdraw funds from the cardholder’s checking or savings account if the cardholder defaults on the credit card payments. When applying for a credit card through a credit union, look for this disclosure in the terms so you are aware of this arrangement if it’s in place. 

Using your card

You can use your card to pay for a purchase at any vendor that accepts your card brand (such as MasterCard or Visa). You can charge up to the available credit line that’s associated with your card. However, to keep your credit score high, it’s best to keep your credit utilization below 30% of the available credit. So, for example, if you have a $1,000 limit, you would want to keep your balance at or below $300. 

Statements

You’ll receive a credit card statement from your credit card issuer each month. The statement will include the following information:

  • Summary of all transactions made on the card since the last billing cycle. This includes all purchases, payments, balance transfers, cash advances, fees, interest payments and more.
  • The balance from the previous billing cycle.
  • The minimum payment due.
  • The payment due date.
  • The number of days in your billing period.
  • Your credit limit and available credit. 
  • Any available or redeemed awards.

It’s important to review your statement for accuracy and to take note of the bill’s due date so you don’t miss a payment. 

Payments

Once you’ve received your statement, you can choose how much to pay. If you pay your entire bill in full by its due date, you’ll avoid paying interest on the charges you made this past month and only pay the cost of the actual purchases. On the other hand, if you only make the minimum payment, interest will continue to accrue on the balance you still carry on the card. If you can’t pay the full balance, you can also choose to pay an amount that falls between the minimum payment and the outstanding balance.

[You might also want to consider automatic payment with us if your card is issued by Advantage One Credit Union to ensure you are never late on your payments.]

Building and maintaining a high credit score

Follow these tips to build your credit score and keep it high:

  • Pay your bills on time.
  • Pay more than just the minimum payment due. 
  • Keep your credit utilization low; ideally, at less than 30% of your available credit. 
  • Ask for a credit limit increase after nine months of responsible credit card use.
  • Keep your cards active.

Responsible credit card usage is an important part of financial health. Follow the tips outlined above to keep your score high and enjoy the benefits for years to come. 

Your Turn: Have you recently opened your first credit card? Tell us about it in the comments.

What Should I Consider Before Getting an Auto Loan?

Q: I’m ready to finance the purchase of a new car. What do I need to know before finalizing my auto loan?

A: Financing a new car is a big decision that will impact your monthly budget for the entire term of the loan. That’s why it’s important to weigh all relevant factors carefully before making your decision. 

Here are five questions to ask before taking out an auto loan.

1. What is the actual cost of this car? 

In many dealerships, the sticker price on a car and the one you end up paying can be vastly different. In some lots, you can negotiate with the salesperson to get them to lower the price. Meanwhile, in other lots, you may find out at the last minute that you need to pay extra fees that will bring the price up significantly. Before you sign on an auto loan, make sure you know how much you’re actually paying for your new wheels.

2. Is this the lowest interest rate I can get from any lender without extending the term?

The interest rate on your loan determines how high your monthly payment will be and how much you’ll be paying overall for the privilege of financing your car. The range of rates you’ll be offered will depend on the lender, the market rates at the time and your credit score and credit history. Be sure to shop around and check out what different lenders can offer you before making your decision.

3. What will my monthly payment be with this loan? 

Your monthly payment will be determined by the loan amount, the annual percentage rate on the loan and the loan term. It’s best to use these details to run the numbers on a potential loan to be sure you can afford the monthly payments (there are hundreds of monthly payment calculators throughout the internet). Defaulting on an auto loan can mean risking the repossession of your vehicle and a massive dent in your future credibility. You’ll also be better prepared to incorporate this new payment into your monthly budget if you have a number to work with before finalizing the loan.

4. Are there any available incentives that can bring down the cost of this loan?

Before closing on a loan, ask the lender about any available incentives that can help you save on the cost of the car. Here are two incentives you may be able to access:

  • The cash rebate. This incentive allows borrowers to apply a dollar amount to the price of a vehicle, effectively bringing down the price. The borrower receives the discounted amount in a cash rebate when the loan is finalized. These rebates are typically offered regionally or under specific circumstances, such as to repeat buyers of a certain brand, buyers who have left a competing brand, recent graduates or members of the military. 
  • Dealer cash. This incentive is similar to the cash rebate, but it’s offered by the dealer instead of the automaker. Dealers may offer these incentives near the end of the month, quarter or model year, as they scramble to reach a quota set by the automaker. The dealer will be compensated for reaching this quota and is consequently open to bringing down the price for the buyer. However, you’ll only know about this incentive if you ask.

5. Do I really need an extended warranty?

Dealers can be overly eager to sell extended warranties to new car owners, but these may not be in the buyer’s best interest. If you’re purchasing a new car, it likely comes with a factory warranty covering the vehicle up to 100,000 miles, making an extended warranty an unnecessary expense. If you’re buying a used car, have it thoroughly inspected by a mechanic and get a detailed vehicle report on AutoCheck.com or Carfax.com to see if you need the extra protection that an extended warranty provides.  

Your Turn: Which factors do you consider before finalizing an auto loan? Tell us about it in the comments. 

All You Need to Know About Home Equity Loans

As you pay down your first mortgage or the value of your home increases, you develop equity. When you have equity built up in your home, borrowing against it with a home equity loan is a great way to tap into the money when you need it most. Many people take out a home equity loan to finance home improvements, pay for their child’s college education, cover unforeseen medical costs, and many other purposes. Here’s all you need to know about home equity loans. 

What is a home equity loan? 

A home equity loan (HEL), or second mortgage, is a secured loan that allows homeowners to borrow against the equity in their home. The loan amount is based on the difference between the home’s current market value and the homeowner’s outstanding mortgage balance. Home equity loans tend to be fixed-rate, while the typical alternative, home equity lines of credit (HELOCs), generally have variable rates and allow the borrower to withdraw funds as needed.

How is a home equity loan amount determined?  

Your primary mortgage is the amount you borrowed when you first purchased your home. Over time, as you pay down the loan and/or the value of your residence increases, so does your equity. You can take a home equity loan out against the equity you have built up in your home, essentially borrowing against your home’s value minus what you still owe on your mortgage. It’s important to note that a home equity loan is a second loan against your home. You’ll still need to pay your primary mortgage along with new payments for your home equity loan.

A lender will typically want you to have at least an 80 percent loan-to-value (LTV) ratio once your home equity loan has been approved. 

Interest rates on home equity loans 

Home equity loans typically have a fixed interest rate, making budgeting for the payments easy. The lender provides a lump sum payment to the borrower, which is then repaid over the life of the loan, along with a set interest rate. Both the monthly payment and interest rate will remain the same over the entire loan term, which can last anywhere from 5 to 30 years. If the borrower sells the home before the loan term is matured, the loan must then be repaid in full. 

A home equity loan can be a great choice for a borrower with a one-time or straightforward cash need such as a home addition, large medical expenses, debt consolidation, or a wedding. 

Are there any costs associated with home equity loans?

As with mortgage loans, there are closing costs associated with home equity loans. Closing costs refer to any fees incurred when originating, writing, closing, or recording a loan. These fees include application, appraisal, title search, attorney fees, and points. Some lenders may advertise no-fee home equity loans which require no cash at closing, but these will usually have other associated costs or a higher interest rate which can easily offset any gains. 

What are the pros and cons of a home equity loan?

There are several advantages to taking out a home equity loan to fund a home improvement project or a large expense: 

  • The amount of interest paid toward a home equity loan may be tax-deductible.
  • Interest rates on HELs are generally lower than those provided by credit cards or unsecured loans. 

Home equity loans do have some disadvantages as well: 

  • Using your home as collateral for the loan means risking foreclosure and the loss of your home if you default on the loan. 
  • If your home value declines over the term of the loan, you may end up owing more than your home is worth. 
  • You’ll need to pay closing costs and other fees when you take out a home equity loan. 
  • You may qualify to borrow more than you actually need and ultimately end up using more than planned, which of course you’ll need to repay. 

The hot real estate market has led to a boom in popularity for home equity loans. However, it’s important to weigh all factors carefully before determining if a home equity loan is best for your specific needs.  

Your Turn: Have you taken out a home equity loan? Tell us about it in the comments.

How Do I Apply for FAFSA?

Q: Help! I need to fill out my FAFSA forms and I don’t know where to start! What do I need to know about filling out my FAFSA forms?

A: Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) season is in full swing! Whether you’re a college student, a high school senior or you’re seeking financial aid for your college-age child, it’s time to get those forms filled out. The rules and deadlines can be confusing, but we’re here to help. Below, we’ve answered many of the questions you may have on applying for FAFSA.

When is my application due? 

There are three FAFSA deadlines you need to note: federal, college, and state. The federal FAFSA submission has one set date, while each college and state sets its deadlines that may or may not coincide with the federal deadline. 

To be considered for federal student aid for the 2021–22 award year, the FAFSA form must be completed between Oct. 1, 2020, and 11:59 p.m. Central time (CT) on June 30, 2022. Any FAFSA corrections or updates must be submitted by 11:59 p.m. CT on Sept. 10, 2022.

The application for the 2022-23 award year will become available on Oct. 1, 2021, and must be completed by 11:59 p.m. Central time (CT) on June 30, 2023. Any corrections or updates must be submitted by 11:59 p.m. CT on Sept. 10, 2023.

As mentioned, many states and colleges have their own deadlines for submitting applications for state and institutional financial aid. You can find your state’s deadline here. Check with your college choice(s) about their deadlines.

The deadlines can get confusing, and while the federal government provides ample time to submit forms, many states and colleges provide aid based on a first-come, first-served basis. For this reason, it’s best to get your application in as soon as you can to increase your chances of receiving aid. 

 Who is eligible for FAFSA?

To qualify for FAFSA, you must meet the following criteria:

  • Demonstrate financial need.
  • Be a U.S. citizen or an eligible noncitizen.
  • Have a valid Social Security number (unless you are from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, or the Republic of Palau).
  • Men must be registered with Selective Service.
  • Be enrolled or accepted for enrollment as a regular student in an eligible degree or certificate program.
  • Maintain satisfactory academic progress in college or career school.
  • Have a high school diploma or a recognized equivalent.

There are more eligibility requirements for FAFSA. You can view the full list of criteria here

 How do I apply for FAFSA?

You can now apply for FAFSA using the free myStudentAid app, available on Apple and Google Play. If you use the app with an Apple device, be sure to disable the “smart punctuation” feature before filling out the form to avoid errors. You can also apply for FAFSA online at FAFSA.ed.gov

You can still send in your application via snail mail, but this is not recommended for several reasons: Online applications are simpler to complete and generally have fewer errors because they are designed to detect common mistakes and/or typos. Your application is also likely to be processed sooner when it’s submitted online. Finally, when applying for FAFSA online, you will be given the option to have your IRS data automatically retrieved and then populate the relevant fields, significantly lowering your chances of errors in your tax reporting. 

What are some common mistakes people make on the FAFSA form? 

A mistake on your form can delay your application and limit your eligibility for aid. To avoid errors, be sure to read every question carefully and review your application before submitting it. 

Here are some of the most common errors on FAFSA forms: 

  • Leaving blank fields. If a question does not apply to you, enter a “0” or write “Not applicable.”  
  • Using commas or decimal points in numeric fields. Instead, round to the nearest dollar.
  • Listing an incorrect Social Security number or driver’s license number. Triple-check these numbers to ensure accuracy. 
  • Using the wrong name. Be sure to use your full legal name as it appears on your Social Security card. 
  • Entering the wrong address. Use your permanent address to avoid confusion. 
  • Forgetting to list your college. Be sure to obtain the Federal School Code for the college you plan on attending and list it along with any other schools where you’ve applied for admission.
  • Forgetting to sign and date. Don’t forget this crucial step! 

Can I apply for FAFSA as an independent? 

If your parents are not paying any part of your college tuition, you may be able to apply for FAFSA as an independent. If you can apply as an independent, your parent’s income will not be considered when your eligibility is determined. 

You may be able to apply for FAFSA as an independent if you meet any of the following criteria:  

  • You will be 24 years of age or older by Dec. 31 of the award year. 
  • You are an orphan (both parents deceased), ward of the court, in foster care or you were a ward of the court at age 13 or older. 
  • You are a veteran of the Armed Forces of the United States or serving on active duty.
  • You are working toward a master’s or doctorate degree.
  • You are legally married.  
  • You have legal dependents (excluding a spouse). 
  • You are an emancipated minor or in legal guardianship. 
  • You are homeless.

If you do not meet any of these requirements, consider contacting a financial aid administrator to discuss your options. 

The sooner you apply for FAFSA, the greater your chances of obtaining financial aid for college. Don’t delay; complete your FAFSA early! 

Your Turn: Have you applied for FAFSA? Share your tips with us in the comments. 

6 Steps to Crushing Debt

You and debt are so over. You’ve just about had it with those endless piles of credit card bills and those hideous numbers that never seem to get any lower. It’s time to kiss that debt goodbye!

Getting rid of high debt will take hard work, willpower and the determination to see it through until the end, but it is doable. Here, we’ve outlined six steps to help you start crushing debt today. 

Step 1: Choose your debt-crushing method

There are two approaches toward getting rid of debt: 

  • The snowball method, popularized by financial guru Dave Ramsey, involves paying off your debt with the smallest balance first and then moving to the next-smallest, until all debts have been paid off. 
  • The avalanche method involves getting rid of the debt that has the highest interest rate first and then moving on to the debt with the second-highest rate until all debts have been paid off. 

Each method has its advantages, with the snowball method placing a heavier emphasis on achieving results at a faster pace, which then motivates the debt-crusher to keep going, and the avalanche method, focusing more on actual numbers and generally saving the borrower money in overall interest paid on their debts. There’s no right approach, and you can choose whichever method appeals to you more.

Step 2: Maximize your payments

Credit card companies are out to make money, and they do this by making it easy to pay just the minimum payment each month, thus really paying only the interest without making progress on the actual principal, thereby trapping millions of consumers in a cycle of endless debt. Beat them at their game by maximizing your monthly payments. Free up some cash each month by trimming your spending in one budget category or consider freelancing for hire and channel those freed-up or newly earned funds toward the first debt on the list you created in Step 1. Don’t forget to continue making minimum payments toward your other debts each month!

Step 3: Consider a debt consolidation loan

If you’re bogged down by several high-interest debts and you find it difficult to manage them all, you may want to consider consolidating your debts into one low-interest loan. A personal loan from Advantage One Credit Union can provide you with the funds you need to pay off your credit card bills and leave you with a single, low-interest payment to make each month. Or, you can transfer your credit card balances to a single card with a low-interest or no-interest introductory period. Be aware, though, that you will likely get hit with high interest rates when the introductory period ends. 

Step 4: Build an emergency fund

As you work toward pulling yourself out of debt, it’s important to take preventative measures to ensure it won’t happen again. One of the best ways you can do this is by building an emergency fund. Ideally, this should hold enough funds to cover your living expenses for three to six months. Start small, squirrelling away whatever you can in a special savings account each month, and adding the occasional windfall, like a work bonus or tax return, to beef up your fund. 

Step 5: Reframe your money mindset

Sometimes, like when there’s a medical emergency or another unexpected and expensive life event, a consumer can get caught under a mountain of debt through no fault of their own. More often, though, there is a wrongful money mindset at play  leading the consumer directly into the debt trap. 

As you work on paying off your debts, take some time to determine what got you into this mess in the first place. Are you consistently spending above your means? Is there a way you can boost your salary or significantly cut down on expenses? Lifestyle changes won’t be easy, but living debt-free makes it all worthwhile. 

Step 6: Put away the plastic

Credit cards are an important component of financial health and the gateway to large, low-interest loans. However, when you’re working to free yourself from debt, it’s best to keep your cards out of sight and out of mind. You can set up a fixed monthly bill to charge one or more of your cards to keep them active, but only do this if you know you will pay off the charge in full before it’s due. Learning to pay your way using only cash and debit cards will also force you to be a more mindful spender. 

Kicking a pile of debt can take months, or even years, but there’s no life like a debt-free life. Best of luck on your journey toward financial freedom!

Your Turn: Have you kicked a significant amount of debt? Tell us how you did it in the comments.