House hunting and credit: What you need to know

(BPT) – By now it is something of a cliche to call homeownership the American dream. But even if sitting on your own deck, looking over your picket fence and sipping lemonade doesn’t move you, homeownership is still one of the best ways to build wealth.

For many, owning a home is cheaper than renting and, in the long run, the biggest investment they will ever make. It is also a practical financial move thanks to the fact that you’re likely building equity while getting a mortgage interest tax break.

So although it is perfectly fine to dream about backyard barbecues and the smell of fresh-cut grass, the path to owning your own home should also involve taking the time to do some financial sightseeing.

As a leader in creating credit scoring models, VantageScore Solutions has made it a priority to educate consumers on the important role a good credit history plays in buying a home.

Whether you’re about to set out to buy your first home or if you are getting ready to sell and buy another home, here are the basics of how credit impacts the home-buying process.

Basics

If you are like most people, you will probably need to take out a loan. If you are able to pay cash for your home instead, count yourself among the lucky few!

A huge part of taking out a loan involves your credit history and credit score. Basically, you must prove to lenders that you can be a responsible borrower and can be trusted with a mortgage of many thousands of dollars. A strong credit score may provide proof of this trustworthiness.

Different types of loans have different credit requirements. Some loans require you to have a credit score of at least 620, although it is possible (with some difficulty) to be approved for a loan with a credit score as low as 580. But getting loan approval is only part of the story.

Better credit, better rate

Home loans come in all shapes and sizes. Some are fixed interest mortgages, some have adjustable rates or longer terms and the list of variables goes on. Just like anything else, some loans are better for you than others. To get the loan that has the lowest interest rate, which right now is around 4 percent, usually requires a higher credit score. Rates can be considerably higher when you have a lower credit score, and the result is paying significantly more monthly over the life of the loan.

The reason is that a higher credit score demonstrates that you are skilled at managing debt and have a history of responsibly paying back many types of loans. Therefore, the lender is taking on less risk when lending you money. The less risk for them, the better the interest rate for you.

While there are, of course, more nuances to the process, your credit score plays an instrumental role in determining the type of loan you may qualify for. Therefore, before you go to your first open house, check your credit score to better understand the factors that typically impact your scores. Many websites provide free access to your VantageScore, which is a perfectly fine barometer to use to directionally gauge your creditworthiness. Mortgage lenders use FICO scores in their underwriting.

You can stay on top of things by subscribing to the monthly credit scoring newsletter, The Score. In The Score, you can find information on VantageScore 4.0, the fourth-generation scoring model that will be available to consumers in early 2018.

Knowing your credit history and understanding the factors that could impact your credit score will help you plan, budget and come up with a realistic wish list for your house.

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How to save on healthcare costs in 2018

(BPT) – (BPT) – Your cable bill, entertainment expenses, grocery extras — these often top the list when people sit down to discuss where they can save money.

One expense you should consider in 2018 is your healthcare costs. Since autumn marks the beginning of the annual open enrollment period for employees, now is the ideal time to sign up for a new health benefit plan or make adjustments to your current plan.

Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) and Flexible Spending Accounts (FSAs) are two options for people looking to save money pre-tax in the New Year. An FSA, which is provided by your employer, allows you to save funds for eligible healthcare expenses. An HSA — which you can obtain on your own or through your employer — is a tax-advantaged savings account that allows you to set aside money to cover medical expenses throughout your lifetime.

Both accounts have the major advantage that the full amount of your pre-tax dollars may be used toward care that you or your family may need. Employees who enroll in an FSA can contribute a portion of their salary pre-tax to pay for qualified medical care expenses within the plan year, while an HSA provides people with qualifying high-deductible health plans the ability to rollover balances and pay for current and future medical expenses.

Awareness and interest in HSAs has increased this year, with the highest levels of interest stemming from Millennials and Gen Xers, according to the 2017 Flexible Spending Account and Health Savings Account Consumer Research study commissioned by Visa and conducted by C+R Research. This nationwide online research was conducted in March 2017, with the FSA survey conducted among 1,306 consumers and the HSA survey conducted among 1,090 consumers.

Key features of HSAs that are most appealing to consumers include the ability to roll over unused dollars from year to year, pre-tax contributions, and having money available to pay for healthcare services.

The study indicates that 91 percent of FSA users agree that saving money, since contributions are pre-tax, tops their list of reasons for having an FSA. Sixty-four percent of FSA users believe that FSAs help them be more prepared and plan for healthcare expenses. In fact, 22 percent of their healthcare purchases (most notably routine doctor visits and vision expenses) on average would not be made if they didn’t have an FSA.

One of the most convenient ways to access funds in an HSA or FSA is with a Visa Healthcare Card, which allows people to use funds in their HSA or FSA to pay for qualified medical expenses wherever Visa debit cards are accepted, making it easy to pay for expenses such as:

*Co-pays and deductibles

*Prescriptions

*Dental services: Cleanings, orthodontia, dentures

*Physical exams

*Vision care, including exams, new glasses, laser eye surgery

*Hearing exams and aids

*Medical equipment such as blood pressure monitors, thermometers

*Smoking cessation programs

For added convenience, many pharmacies, grocery stores and other retailers that sell healthcare products have the capability to distinguish between covered items and non-covered items when you pay for them, so you don’t have to wonder whether something is covered.

By using a Visa Healthcare Card at these locations, you no longer have to pay out-of-pocket and then submit receipts to be reimbursed for your medical expenses, saving you time and money!

These are all great reasons why 80 percent of FSA users surveyed prefer to access their funds with their FSA card over other methods, and why 76 percent of HSA users surveyed say a debit card linked to an HSA makes paying for medical expenses convenient. As you review your options this open enrollment season, ask your employer if it offers an HSA or FSA with a Visa Healthcare Card to provide easy access to your funds. To learn more, visit www.visahealthcare.com.

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5 unexpected ways life insurance protects your loved ones

(BPT) – More than half of Americans who own life insurance say they purchased it primarily to cover final expenses if something happens to them, according to the 2016 Life Insurance Barometer study. Yet one in four also say they don’t think they have enough life insurance — and the mistaken assumption that life insurance is just for paying final expenses could explain why so many are underinsured.

While survivors certainly can use life insurance benefits to pay final costs, or to help replace lost income, life insurance proceeds can also fund other important financial objectives. Many of those goals cost far more than covering end-of-life expenses.

Here are five financial goals that life insurance can help fund for your loved ones after you’re gone:

Raising children

Raising a child born in 2015 to age 17 will cost a family more than $284,570 for basics like food, shelter and other necessities, according to the USDA and data from its Consumer Expenditures Survey. That figure does not include college tuition. Costs for special needs children can be even higher.

“Life is hard enough when you lose someone you care about, and financial stuff doesn’t make it any easier,” says Ryan McNany, whose mother, Mickey, passed away from colon cancer. McNany’s daughter, Mary, has Down syndrome, and had a special relationship with her grandmother. Their story is featured in Prudential Life Insurance’s Masterpiece of Love video series.

“Mom didn’t have a lot of life insurance, but what a gift to be able to have some insurance to help ease the burden,” McNany says. “I’m grateful that Mom had a little bit.”

College education

A four-year college degree can cost more than $100,000 for tuition only, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Factor in food, books, housing, transportation and other expenses and it’s easy to understand why the Institute for College Access and Success says that seven in 10 college seniors graduate with more than $30,000 in student loan debt.

Life insurance proceeds can help fund college educations, even if college is many years in the future for the child. Beneficiaries can invest life insurance payouts in tax-advantaged college savings accounts to ensure funds will be available when the child is ready for college.

Retirement income

The average cost of retirement is more than $780,000, the Motley Fool reports. Retirees with health issues, disabilities or high standards of living may need even more. According to the National Council on Aging, money challenges are common among retirees; 2.9 million senior households suffer from food insecurity, more than a third still owe money on a mortgage, and more than 61 percent have some form of debt.

Life insurance proceeds can pay off mortgages and other commitments to allow senior survivors to live debt-free, and can be invested in tax-advantaged retirement savings vehicles to help ensure retirement income.

Business continuity

After receiving a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, Dawn Fitch knew she needed to protect the future of her bath products company. Fitch had lost her own father, a lifelong entrepreneur, after a lengthy illness. She knew firsthand the impact such a loss can have on a business’s ability to continue operating and supporting surviving family members.

“People have invested time, money, energy into this business and into me, so I feel a responsibility to make it work,” says Fitch, whose story is featured in Masterpiece of Love. “I need to really make sure that this business, if I’m not here or if I can’t do anything, can run independent of me. Life insurance is peace of mind, and life insurance will help me take care of my family if I’m not here.”

Leaving a legacy

When he was just 10 years old, Hal Williams lost his father to a heart attack. “My mother was still working and my father’s little bit of life insurance helped keep food on the table, a roof over our heads and us going,” recalls the host of the Masterpieces of Love series. “When I had my own family, having plenty of life insurance for all of us was of singular importance.”

Williams’ loss of his father at such an early age, and the security life insurance helped bring his family, inspired his role in the video series.

Life insurance benefits can leave a legacy for survivors, whether it’s helping provide basic financial security, pay for college, start a business or fulfill a dream. To learn more about life insurance and to view more inspiring stories, visit https://www.prudential.com/thedrisin.

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How to lower your monthly mortgage payment

(BPT) – Owning your own home comes with many advantages, including escaping rising rents and the personal and financial stability associated with homeownership. Fortunately, millions of Americans, with less than 20 percent down, have been able to buy a home sooner thanks to mortgage insurance (MI). If you don’t put down 20 percent of the mortgage cost, you will likely be required to purchase MI, which enables low-down-payment borrowers to qualify for home financing from lenders.

While homeownership has many benefits and continues to be part of the American Dream, it is not without costs. Several surveys have found that the majority of first-time homebuyers — over 80 percent according to one study — put less than 20 percent down. For these borrowers, there is usually the added expense of MI, which may give some of these borrowers pause.

But there is good news: the monthly private mortgage insurance premiums do not last forever on most conventional loans. And when private MI (PMI) cancels, homeowners will have more cash in their pockets each month — money that is available for home improvements or other goals. It is important to understand, however, that not all MI is the same, and not all MI can be canceled.

There are numerous low-down-payment mortgage options available that include MI. The two most common are: (1) home loans backed 100 percent by the government through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) that include both an upfront and annual mortgage insurance premium (MIP); and (2) conventional loans, which are typically backed at least in part by private sources of capital, such as private MI. The key difference is that one form can be canceled (PMI) while the other (FHA) typically cannot be canceled.

An FHA loan can be obtained with a down payment as low as 3.5 percent. However, be aware that you will typically have to pay a mortgage insurance premium (MIP) of 1.75 percent of the total loan amount at closing or have it financed into the mortgage. In addition to your regular monthly mortgage payments on your FHA loan, you will also pay a fixed monthly MIP fee for the life of the loan. This means you could pay hundreds of dollars extra every month — thousands over the life of the loan — until you pay off the entirety of the loan.

If you obtain a conventional loan with PMI, you can put as little as 3 percent down. Like an FHA loan, PMI fees are generally factored into your monthly mortgage payment. However, PMI can often be canceled once you have established 20 percent equity in the home and/or the principal balance of the mortgage is scheduled to reach 78 percent of the home’s original value. This means that the rest of your mortgage payments will not include any extra fees, so that your payments go down in time, saving you money each month. What you save in the long run can then be put toward expenses like home renovations, which can further increase your home’s value.

MI is a good thing because it bridges the divide between a low down payment and mortgage approval. But not all MI is created equal. If you want to buy a home but still save in the long run, PMI might be the right option for you. Check out lowdownpaymentfacts.org to learn more.

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Keeping up with the digital natives [Video]

(BPT) – The Bank of America Trends in Consumer Mobility Report explores timely mobile trends and forward-looking consumer behaviors that increasingly impact our everyday lives. The report includes the youngest generation — Generation Z — to better understand the future of mobile and the next era of banking. Head of Digital Banking Michelle Moore highlights key findings in this video.

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