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How to Budget for Beginners

January 27, 2021

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How to Budget for Beginners

January 27, 2021

How to Budget for Beginners

Everybody needs a budget.

But that doesn’t stop “budget” from being an intimidating word to many people. Some folks may think it means scrimping on everything and never going out for a night on the town. It doesn’t! Budgeting simply means that you know where your money is going and you have a way to track it.

The aim with budgeting is to be aware of your spending, plan for your expenses1, and make sure you have enough saved to pursue your goals.

Without a budget, it can be easy for expenses to climb beyond your ability to pay for them. You break out the plastic and before you know it you’ve spent fifty bucks on drinks and appetizers with the gang after work. These habits might leave you with a lot of accumulated debt. Plus, without a budget, you may not be saving for a rainy day, vacation, or your retirement. A budget allows you to enact a strategy to help pursue your goals. But what if you’ve never had a budget? Where should you start? Here’s a quick step-by-step guide on how to get your budgeting habit off the ground!

Track your expenses every day
Start by tracking your expenses. Write down everything you buy, including memberships, online streaming services, and subscriptions. It’s not complicated to do with popular mobile and web applications. You can also buy a small notebook to keep track of each purchase. Even if it’s a small pack of gum from the gas station or a quick coffee at the corner shop, jot it down. Keep track of the big stuff too, like your rent and bill payments.

Add up expenses every week and develop categories
Once you’ve collected enough data, it’s time to figure out where exactly your paycheck is going. Start with adding up your expenses every week. How much are you spending? What are you spending money on? As you add your spending up, start developing categories. The goal is to organize all your expenses so you can see what you’re spending money on. For example, if you eat out a few times per week, group those expenses under a category called “Eating Out”. Get as general or as specific as you wish. Maybe throwing all your food purchases into one bucket is all you need, or you may want to break it down by location - grocery store, big box store, restaurants, etc.

Create a monthly list of expenses
Once you’ve recorded your expenses for a full month, it’s time to create a monthly list. Now you might also have more clarity on how you want to set up your categories. Next, total each category for the month.

Adjust your spending as necessary
Compare your total expenses with your income. There are two possible outcomes. You may be spending within your income or spending outside your income. If you’re spending within your income, create a category for savings if you don’t have one. It’s a good idea to create a separate savings category for large future purchases too, like a home or a vacation. If you find you’re spending too much, you may need to cut back spending in some categories. The beauty of a budget is that once you see how much you’re spending, and on what, you’ll be able to strategize where you need to cut back.

Keep going
Once you develop the habit of budgeting, it should become part of your routine. You can look forward to working on your savings and developing a retirement strategy, but don’t forget to budget in a little fun too!

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¹Jeremy Vohwinkle, “Make a Personal Budget in 6 Steps: A Step-by-Step Guide to Make a Budget,” The Balance (March 6, 2020).

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Are You Prepared For A Rainy Day?

January 25, 2021

Are You Prepared For A Rainy Day?

It’s never a bad idea to prepare for a financial emergency.

Unexpected expenses, market fluctuations, or a sudden job loss could leave you financially vulnerable. Here are some tips to help you get ready for your bank account’s rainy days!

Know the difference between a rainy day fund and an emergency fund … but have both!
People often use the terms interchangeably, but there are some big differences between a rainy day fund and an emergency fund. A rainy day fund is typically designed to cover a relatively small unexpected cost, like a car repair or minor medical bills. Emergency funds are supposed to help cover expenses that might accumulate during a long period of unemployment or if you experience serious health complications. Both funds are important for preparing for your financial future—it’s never too early to start building them.

Tackle your debt now
Just because you can manage your debt now doesn’t mean you’ll be able to in the future. Prioritizing debt reduction, especially if you have student loans or credit card debit, can go a long way toward helping you prepare for an unexpected financial emergency. It never hurts to come up with a budget that includes paying down debt and to set a date for when you want to be debt-free!

Learn skills to bolster your employability
One of the worst things that can blindside you is unemployment. That’s why taking steps now to help with a potential future job search can be so important. Look into free online educational resources and classes, and investigate certifications. Those can go a long way towards diversifying your skillset (and can look great on a resume).

None of these tips will do you much good unless you get the ball rolling on them now. The best time to prepare for an emergency is before the shock and stress set in!

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Should You Get Rid Of Your Credit Cards?

January 18, 2021

Should You Get Rid Of Your Credit Cards?

There’s no doubt that credit card debt is a huge financial burden for many Americans.

On average, each household that has revolving credit card debt owes $7,104 (1). It might be tempting to see those numbers and decide to throw out your credit cards entirely. After all, why hang on to a source of temptation when you could make do with cash or a debit card? However, keeping a credit card around has some serious benefits that you should consider before you decide to free yourself from plastic’s grasp.

You might have bigger debts to deal with
On average, credit card debt is low compared to auto loans ($27,934), student loans ($46,679), and mortgages ($192,618) (2). Simply put, you might be dealing with debts that cost you a lot more than your credit card. That leaves you with a few options. You can either start with paying down your biggest debts (a debt avalanche) or get the smaller ones out of the way and move up (a debt snowball). That means you’ll either tackle credit card debt first or wait while you deal with a mortgage payment or student loans. Figure out where to start and see where your credit card fits in!

Ditching credit cards can lower your credit score
Credit utilization and availability play a big role in determining your credit score (3). The less credit you use and the more you have available, the better your score will likely be. Closing down a credit card account may drastically lower the amount of credit you have available, which then could reduce your score. Even freezing your card in a block of ice can have negative effects; credit card companies will sometimes lower your available credit or just close the account if they see inactivity for too long (4). This may not be the end of the world if you have another line of credit (like a mortgage) but it’s typically better for your credit score to keep a credit card around and only use it for smaller purchases.

It’s often wiser to limit credit card usage than to ditch them entirely. Figure out which debts are costing you the most, and focus your efforts on paying them down before you cut up your cards. While you’re at it, try limiting your credit card usage to a few small monthly purchases to protect your credit score and free up some extra funds to work on your other debts.

Need help coming up with a strategy? Give me a call and we can get started on your journey toward financial freedom!

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(1) Erin El Issa, “Nerdwallet’s 2019 American Household Credit Card Debt Study,” Nerdwallet, December 2, 2019

(2) Erin El Issa, “Nerdwallet’s 2019 American Household Credit Card Debt Study,” Nerdwallet, December 2, 2019

(3) Latoya Irby, “Understanding Credit Utilization: How Your Usage Affects Your Credit Score,” The Balance, February 20, 2020

(4) Lance Cothern, “Will My Credit Score Go Down If A Credit Card Company Closes My Account For Non-Use?” March 2, 2020


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Now’s the Time for Future Planning

January 13, 2021

Now’s the Time for Future Planning

What happened to the days of the $10 lawn mowing job or the $7-an-hour babysitting gig every Saturday night?

Not a penny withheld. No taxes to file. No stress about saving a “million dollars” for retirement. As a kid, doing household chores or helping out your friends and neighbors for a little spending money was vastly different from your grown up reality – writing checks for all those bills, paying your taxes, and buying all the things that children seem to need these days, all while trying to save as much as you can for your retirement. When you were a kid, did those concepts feel so far away that they might as well have been camped out on Easter Island?

What happened to the carefree attitude surrounding our finances? It’s simple: we got older. More opportunities. More responsibilities. More choices. As the years go by, finances get more complicated. So knowing where your money is going and whether or not it’s working for you when it gets there is something you need to determine sooner rather than later – even before your source of income switches from mowing lawns and babysitting to your first internship at that marketing firm downtown.

A great way to get a better idea of where your money is going and what it’s doing when it gets there? A financial strategy.

A sound strategy for your money is essential, starting as soon as possible is better than waiting, and talking to a financial professional is a solid way to get going. No message in a bottle sent from a more-prepared version of your future self is going to drift your way from Easter Island. But sitting down with me is a great place to start. Contact me any time.

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Part 2: Tools for Dealing with Student Debt

January 11, 2021

Part 2: Tools for Dealing with Student Debt

In Part 1: The Reality of Student Loans, we saw that student debt can be a significant problem that affects many Americans.

But what about you? Is there anything you can do if you owe thousands to the government in loans? Better yet, how can you start preparing for your family’s financial future now to make sure you can afford college for your children? Here are a few tips to get you started in the right direction!

Is college worth the debt?
Unpleasant as they may be, student loans may be worth it for you in the long run. Someone with a bachelor’s degree makes on average $1 million more throughout their career than someone without.[i] The key is recognizing that not all degrees are created equal and weighing out the cost and benefits of pursuing specific degrees. Studying art for four years when there might be a scarcity of jobs in your field might make it harder to pay off loans than going into medicine or engineering. It’s also worth considering that getting a degree in something like English or History doesn’t mean you have to start a career in those fields, depending on your interests and how you network and build your resume.

Look into different payment plans and loan forgiveness options
But say you’re a recent graduate who’s looking for work and doesn’t have a steady income. What options do you have? A good first step is looking into different payment plans that are based around your income instead of a fixed monthly sum until you get solid cash flow. The government also offers some loan forgiveness for teachers working in underprivileged areas or for disabilities, so be sure to investigate those options.[ii]

Start budgeting habits
The most important tool for handling student debt is budgeting and spending money wisely. Take some time each week to see where your money is actually going and cut out what you don’t need. Dedicate as much as you can to paying off those loans without sacrificing your retirement or rainy-day funds. This might require making some short term sacrifices, but remember that the long term financial benefits can be huge!

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Part 1: The Reality of Student Loans

January 6, 2021

Part 1: The Reality of Student Loans

Student loans are a hot button issue in today’s financial and political conversation.

It seems that many people are getting more and more worried about the student loan crisis with each passing year. But is there actually a crisis? Just how serious are student loans and what sets them apart from regular debt? Let’s look at the facts to see if there’s a real reason for concern.

How do student loans work?
Student loans come from either the Federal government or private lenders. Federal loans are more common, so let’s focus on them. Essentially, you borrow money from the government to cover college tuition that you then must repay with interest after graduating or dropping out. But why have these loans seemed to cause a problem for so many people?

First, student loans tend to be large and are getting larger as tuition seems to increase every year.[i] Second, they tend to be difficult to discharge and forgive. Third, an undergraduate degree may no longer be the ticket to financial security that it once was.

It’s possible to graduate with a perfectly good degree from an upstanding university and still struggle to pay normal bills, let alone thousands in debt and interest! All this means that many Americans are attempting to start careers, families, and businesses with a cloud of massive and unforgivable debt hanging over them. This financial strain may have serious effects on the health and wellness of students and their families for years after graduation.

The effects of student debt
Did you know that a survey found one in fifteen student loan holders have considered suicide due to their finances? [ii] But young adults aren’t the only ones affected by seemingly insurmountable debt; PLUS Loans, which are given out to parents with kids in college, have started to take a toll and even some senior citizens are feeling the financial heat. But it looks unlikely that former students, whether recently graduated or long retired, will find relief anytime soon. In fact, Uncle Sam is cranking up the pressure on delinquent student debt by withholding tax refunds, adding collection costs, and even confiscating government IDs.[iii]

What to do about crushing debt?
Student debt is definitely a serious issue that should be ringing alarm bells if you’re a parent with college-age kids or a recent graduate transitioning into the workforce. Do you and your family have the financial tools for dealing with thousands in unshakable debt? Is it ever too early to start planning and saving for college? How do you handle Federal loans after you’ve gotten your diploma? We’ll be talking more about that in Part 2: The Tools for Dealing with Student Debt, so stay tuned!

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Putting a Wrap On the Sandwich Generation

January 4, 2021

Putting a Wrap On the Sandwich Generation

Ever heard of the “Sandwich Generation”?

Unfortunately, it’s not a group of financially secure, middle-aged foodies whose most important mission is hanging out in the kitchens of their paid-off homes, brainstorming ideas about how to make the perfect sandwich. The Sandwich Generation refers to adults who find themselves in the position of financially supporting their grown children and their own parents, all while trying to save for their futures. They’re “sandwiched” between caring for both the older generation and the younger generation.

Can you relate to this? Do you feel like a PB&J that was forgotten at the bottom of a 2nd grader’s backpack?

If you feel like a sandwich, here are 3 tips to help put a wrap on that:

1. Have a plan. In an airplane, the flight attendants instruct us to put on our own oxygen mask before helping someone else put on theirs – this means before anyone, even your children or your elderly parents. Put your own mask on first. This practice is designed to help keep you and everyone else safe. Imagine if half the plane passed out from lack of oxygen because everyone neglected themselves while trying to help other people. When it comes to potentially having to support your kids and your parents, a tailored financial strategy that includes life insurance and contributing to a retirement fund will help you get your own affairs in order first, so that you can help care for your loved ones next.

2. Increase your income. For that sandwich, does it feel like there’s never enough mayonnaise? You’re always trying to scrape that last little bit from the jar. Increasing your income would help stock your pantry (figuratively, and also literally) with an extra jar or two. Options for a 2nd career are everywhere, and many entrepreneurial opportunities let you set your own hours and pace. Working part-time as your own boss while helping to get out of the proverbial panini press? Go for it!

3. Start dreaming again. You may have been in survival mode for so long that you’ve forgotten you once had dreams. What would you love to do for yourself or your family when you have the time and money? Take that vacation to Europe? Build that addition on to the house? Own that luxury car you’ve always wanted? Maybe you’d like to have enough leftover to help others pursue their goals.

It’s never too late to get the ball rolling on any of these steps. When you’re ready, feel free to give me a call. We can work together to quickly prioritize how you can start feeling less like baloney and more like a Monte Cristo.

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259957 07.20

How To Make A Budget You Can Stick To

December 30, 2020

How To Make A Budget You Can Stick To

Some people love to live a life of thrift.

It’s a challenge they tackle with gusto. Shaving down expenses with couponing, hunting the best deals with an app on their phones, or simply finding creative ways to reuse a cardboard box, gives them a thrill. For others, budgeting conjures up images of living in tents, foraging for nuts and berries in the woods, and sewing together everyone’s old t-shirts to make a blanket for grandma.

To each their own! But budgeting doesn’t have to be faced like a wilderness survival reality TV competition. Sure, there might be some sacrifice and compromise involved when you first implement your budget (giving up that daily $6 latte might feel like roughing it at first), but rest assured there’s a happy middle to most things, and a way that won’t make you hate adhering to your financial goals.

Simplifying the budgeting process can help ease the transition. Check out the following suggestions to make living on a budget something you can stick to – instead of making a shelter out of sticks.

Use that smartphone. Your parents may have used a system of labeled envelopes to budget for various upcoming expenses. Debit cards have largely replaced cash these days, and all those labeled envelopes were fiddly anyway. Your best budgeting tool is probably in your pocket, your purse, or wherever your smartphone is at the moment.

Budgeting apps can connect to your bank account and keep track of incoming and outgoing cash flow, making it simple to categorize current expenses and create a solid budget. A quick analysis of the data and charts from the app can give you important clues about your spending behavior. Maybe you’ll discover that you spent $100 last week for on-demand movies. $5 here and $10 there can add up quickly. Smartphone apps can help you see (in vivid color) how your money could be evaporating in ways you might not feel on a day-to-day basis.

Some apps give you the ability to set a budget for certain categories of spending (like on-demand movies), and you can keep track of how you’re doing in relation to your defined budget. Some apps even provide alerts to help keep you aware of your spending. And if you’re feeling nostalgic, there are even apps that mimic the envelope systems of old, but with a digital spin.

Plan for unexpected expenses. Even with modern versions of budgeting, one of the biggest risks for losing your momentum is the same as it was in the days of the envelope system: unexpected expenses. Sometimes an unexpected event – like car trouble, an urgent home repair, or medical emergency – can cost more than we expected. A lot more.

A good strategy to help protect your budget from an unexpected expense is an Emergency Fund. It may take a while to build your Emergency Fund, but it will be worth it if the tire blows out, the roof starts leaking, or you throw your back out trying to fix either of those things against your doctor’s orders.

The size of your Emergency Fund will depend on your unique situation, but a goal of at least $1,000 to 3 months of your income is recommended. Three months of income may sound like a lot, but if you experience a sudden loss of income, you’d have at least three full months of breathing room to get back on track.

Go with the flow. As you work with your new budget, you may find that you miss the mark on occasion. Some months you’ll spend more. Some months you’ll spend less. That’s normal. Over time, you’ll have an average for each expense category or expense item that will reveal where you can do better – but also where you may have been more frugal than needed.

With these suggestions in mind, there is no time like the present to get started! Make that new budget, then buy yourself an ice cream or turn on the air conditioning. Once you know where you stand, where you need to tighten up on spending, and where you can let loose a little, budgeting might not seem like a punishment. In fact, you might find that it’s a useful, much-needed strategy that you CAN stick to – all part of the greater journey to your financial independence.

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259740 06.20

3 Ways to Shift from Indulgence to Independence

December 28, 2020

3 Ways to Shift from Indulgence to Independence

On Monday mornings, we’re all faced with a difficult choice.

Get up a few minutes early to brew your own coffee, or sleep a little later and then whip through a drive-thru for your morning pick-me-up?

When that caffeine hits your bloodstream, how you got the coffee may not matter too much. But the next time you go through a drive thru for that cup o’ joe, picture your financial strategy shouting and waving its metaphorical arms to get your attention.

Why? Each and every time you indulge in a “luxury” that has a less expensive alternative, you’re potentially delaying your financial independence. Delay it too long and you might find yourself working when you should be enjoying a comfortable retirement. Sound dramatic? Alarmist? Apocalyptic? But that’s how it happens – one $5 peppermint mocha at a time. This isn’t to say that you can’t enjoy an indulgence every once in a while. You gotta “treat yourself” sometimes, right? Just be sure that you’re sticking with your overall, long-term strategy. Your future self will thank you!

Here are 3 ways to shift from indulgence to independence:

1. Make coffee at home. Reducing your expenses can start as simply as making your morning coffee at home. And you might not even have to get up earlier to do it. Why not invest in a coffee pot with a delay brewing function? It’ll start brewing at the time you preset, and what’s a better alarm clock than the scent of freshly-brewed coffee wafting from the kitchen? Or from your bedside table… (This is a judgment-free zone here – do what you need to do to get up on time in the morning.)

Get started: A quick Google search will yield numerous lists of copycat specialty drinks that you can make at home.

2. Workout at home. A couple of questions to ask yourself:

1) Will an expensive gym membership fit into your monthly budget? 2) How often have you gone to the gym in the last few months?

If your answers are somewhere between “No” and “I’d rather not say,” then maybe it’s time to ditch the membership in favor of working out at home. Or perhaps you’re a certified gym rat who faithfully wrings every dollar out of your gym membership each month. Then ask yourself if you really need all the bells and whistles that an expensive gym might offer. Elliptical, dumbbells, and machines with clearly printed how-tos? Yes, of course. But a hot tub, sauna, and an out-of-pocket juice bar? Maybe not. If you can get in a solid workout without a few of those pricey extras, your body and your wallet will thank you.

Get started: Instead of a using a treadmill inside the gym, take a walk or jog around your local park each day – it’s free! If you prefer to work out at a gym, look into month-to-month membership options instead of paying a hefty price for a year-long membership up front.

3. Ditch cable and use a video streaming service instead. Cable may give you access to more channels and more shows than ever before, but let’s be honest. Who has time to watch 80 hours of the greatest moments in sports every week? Asking yourself if you could cut the cable and wait a little longer for your favorite shows to become available on a streaming service might not be a bad idea. Plus, who doesn’t love using a 3-day weekend to binge-watch an entire series every now and then? There’s also the bonus of how easy it is to cancel/reactivate a streaming service. With cable, you may be locked into a multi-year contract, installation can be a hassle (and they may add an extra installation fee), and you can forget about knowing when the cable guy is actually going to show up.

Get started: Plenty of streaming services offer free trial periods. Go ahead and give them a try, but be careful: You may have to enter your credit card number to access the free trial. Don’t forget to cancel before your trial is over, or you will be charged.

Taking time to address the luxuries you can live without (or enjoy less often) has the potential to make a huge impact on your journey to financial independence. Cutting back here and investing in yourself there – it all adds up.

In what areas do you think you can start indulging less?

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259739 06.20

Big Financial Rocks First

December 23, 2020

Big Financial Rocks First

A teacher walked into her classroom with a clear jar, a bag of rocks, a bucket of sand, and a glass of water. She placed all the large rocks carefully into the jar.

“Who thinks this jar is full?” she asked. Almost half of her students raised their hands. Next, she began to pour sand from the bucket into the jar full of large rocks emptying the entire bucket into the jar.

“Who thinks this jar is full now?” she asked again. Almost all of her students now had their hands up. To her student’s surprise, she emptied the glass of water into the seemingly full jar of rocks and sand.

“What do you think I’m trying to show you?” She inquired.

One eager student answered: “That things may appear full, but there is always room left to put more stuff in.”

The teacher smiled and shook her head.

“Good try, but the point of this illustration is that if I didn’t put in the large rocks first, I would not be able to fit them in afterwards.”

This concept can be applied to the idea of a constant struggle between priorities that are urgent versus those that are important. When you have limited resources, priorities must be in place since there isn’t enough to go around. Take your money, for example. Unless you have an unlimited amount of funds (we’re still trying to find that source), you can’t have an unlimited amount of important financial goals.

Back to the teacher’s illustration. Let’s say the big rocks are your important goals. Things like buying a home, helping your children pay for college, retirement at 60, etc. They’re all important –but not urgent. These things may happen 10, 20, or 30 years from now.

Urgent things are the sand and water. A monthly payment like your mortgage payment or your monthly utility and internet bills. The urgent things must be paid and paid on time. If you don’t pay your mortgage on time… Well, you might end up retiring homeless.

Even though these monthly obligations might be in mind more often than your retirement or your toddler’s freshman year in college, if all you focus on are urgent things, then the important goals fall by the wayside. And in some cases, they stay there long after they can realistically be rescued. Saving up for a down payment for a home, funding a college education, or having enough to retire on is nearly impossible to come up with overnight (still looking for that source of unlimited funds!). In most cases, it takes time and discipline to save up and plan well to achieve these important goals.

What are the big rocks in your life? If you’ve never considered them, spend some time thinking about it. When you have a few in mind, place them in the priority queue of your life. Otherwise, if those important goals are ignored for too long, they might become one of the urgent goals - and perhaps ultimately unrealized if they weren’t put in your plan early on.

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259747 06.20

Save The Money Or Pay Off The Debt?

December 21, 2020

Save The Money Or Pay Off The Debt?

If you come into some extra money – a year-end bonus at work, an inheritance from your aunt, or you finally sold your rare coin collection for a tidy sum – you might not be quite sure what to do with the extra cash.

On one hand you may have some debt you’d like to knock out, or you might feel like you should divert the money into your emergency savings or retirement fund.

They’re both solid choices, but which is better? That depends largely on your interest rates.

High Interest Rate
Take a look at your debt and see what your highest interest rate(s) are. If you’re leaning towards saving the bonus you’ve received, keep in mind that high borrowing costs may rapidly erode any savings benefits, and it might even negate those benefits entirely if you’re forced to dip into your savings in the future to pay off high interest. The higher the interest rate, the more important it is to pay off that debt earlier – otherwise you’re simply throwing money at the creditor.

Low Interest Rate
On the other hand, sometimes interest rates are low enough to warrant building up an emergency savings fund instead of paying down existing debt. An example is if you have a long-term, fixed-rate loan, such as a mortgage. The idea is that money borrowed for emergencies, rather than non-emergencies, will be expensive, because emergency borrowing may have no collateral and probably very high interest rates (like payday loans or credit cards). So it might be better to divert your new-found funds to a savings account, even if you aren’t reducing your interest burden, because the alternative during an emergency might mean paying 20%+ rather than 0% on your own money (or 3-5% if you consider the interest you pay on the current loan).

Raw Dollar Amounts
Relatively large loans might have low interest rates, but the actual total interest amount you’ll pay over time might be quite a sum. In that case, it might be better to gradually divert some of your bonus money to an emergency account while simultaneously starting to pay down debt to reduce your interest. A good rule of thumb is that if debt repayments comprise a big percentage of your income, pay down the debt, even if the interest rate is low.

The Best for You
While it’s always important to reduce debt as fast as possible to help achieve financial independence, it’s also important to have some money set aside for use in emergencies.

If you do receive an unexpected windfall, it will be worth it to take a little time to think about a strategy for how it can best be used for the maximum long term benefit for you and your family.

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Debit Or Credit? What's The Difference?

December 16, 2020

Debit Or Credit? What's The Difference?

For many people, when purchasing items with a debit card or credit card, the only difference for them may boil down to simply entering a PIN code or scribbling a signature.

But what really is the difference? The answer may be a little complicated, largely due to misnomers and a blending of terms used by the public. Read on to see what the difference actually is.

A clarification of terms
The words credit, debit, and cash seem to be used so loosely by the general public that many people seem confused by what the difference is between them. But in accounting and finance, they have very specific meanings. For our purposes, cash is money that you can spend immediately. It can be cold hard currency of course – bills and coins which you might have in your hand or in your wallet – or cash can refer to the balance in your checking account. This is money that you own, and you can withdraw all of it right now, electronically or physically.

Credit is basically someone’s willingness to accept an IOU from you. Here we will use it as a noun. Buying on credit means the seller trusts the buyer to hand over cash – money which is spendable right now – in the future. Debit, on the other hand, is a verb, and it means to deduct an amount from a cash balance immediately (often a bank account balance). Of course, credit can also be a verb (meaning to add to a cash balance immediately). This mixing of verbs and nouns can make the distinction of the terms in everyday use difficult.

Cash is money you can spend right now, electronically or physically. Credit is an agreement to pay cash later. Debit is a verb that means to subtract cash from a balance right away.

When money is due
The major difference between credit and debit cards is the time when cash must be paid. Credit cards, standing in for a promise to pay cash later, allow one to purchase things even if said person has no cash immediately available. For example, if you need to buy some clothes for a new job, you might only have enough cash on hand to purchase one outfit. You may not receive any more cash until you get your first paycheck in two weeks. But you probably wouldn’t want to wear the same outfit every day for two weeks. What can you do?

This is when credit comes in handy: you buy all the outfits you need now, while making a promise to pay the credit card company back in the future. You receive your outfits immediately even though you don’t technically have enough cash yet. You need to complete some work before you receive the money, but the credit card company accepts your IOU in place of cash for the time being.

On the other hand, if you use a debit card to pay for the clothes, the cash will be deducted immediately from your bank account. Remember, the balance of your bank account is cash in financial terms because it is spendable right now. When you enter your PIN code, the bank checks that you have enough money to make the purchase immediately and, if you do, the bank authorizes the transaction. If you need new shoes for your job but don’t have enough money in your bank account, you won’t be able to use a debit card.

Interest rates for using credit cards
Why would anyone ever want to use debit if they could use credit? One reason is budgeting and discipline. However, a stronger reason can be interest: promising to pay later may come at a price, and that price is called interest. Credit card companies do not make these short term loans out of the goodness of their hearts. They do it for profit. If you borrow money for a little while – i.e., you take money and promise to pay it back later – you will have to compensate the bank, seller, or credit card company for that ability. Thus we potentially pay interest with credit cards but not with debit cards.

Why don’t we pay interest on debit cards? Well, because the money is already yours, of course.

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When Is It Ok To Use A Credit Card?

December 14, 2020

When Is It Ok To Use A Credit Card?

Some could say “never!” but there might be situations in which using a credit card may be the option you want to go with.

Many families use credit with good intentions – and then life happens – surprise expenses or a change in income leave them struggling to get ahead of growing debt. To be fair, there may be times to use credit and times to avoid using credit.

Purchasing big-ticket items
A big-screen TV or a laptop purchased with a credit card may have additional warranty protection through your credit card company. Features and promotions vary by card, however, so be sure to know the details before you buy. If your credit card offers reward points or airline miles, big-ticket items may be a faster way to earn points than making small purchases over time. Just be sure to have a plan to pay off the balance.

Travel and car rental
For many families, these two items go hand in hand. Credit cards sometimes offer additional insurance protection for your luggage or for the trip itself. Your credit card company may offer some additional protection for car rentals. You might score some extra airline miles or reward points in this category as well because the numbers can add up quickly.

Online shopping
Credit card and debit card numbers are being stolen all the time. Online merchants can have a breach and not even be aware that your credit card info is out in the wild. The advantage of using a credit card as opposed to a debit card is time. You’ll have more time to dispute charges that aren’t yours. If your debit card gets into the wrong hands, someone might be quickly spending your mortgage money, food and gas money, or college tuition for your kids. Credit cards may be a better choice to use online because the effects of fraud don’t have an immediate impact on your bank balance.

Legitimate emergencies
Life happens and sometimes we don’t have enough readily available cash to pay for emergencies. Life’s emergencies can range from broken appliances to broken cars to broken bones and in these cases, you may not have any other viable options for payment.

Using credit isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, if you plan carefully, you may reap several types of benefits from using credit cards and still avoid paying interest. You’ll have to pay off the balance right away to avoid finance charges, though. So, always think twice before you charge once.

Some credit cards offer consumer benefits, like extended warranties, extra insurance, or even rewards. There are some situations in which using a credit card may come in handy.

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Turn Your Hobby Into A Side Gig

December 9, 2020

Turn Your Hobby Into A Side Gig

Do you have a hobby that you really love? Could you use a little extra cash?

What if you could get paid for doing something that you already enjoy doing? We’re all good at something. Many people have turned their hobbies into a side business as a way to earn extra money. For nearly everyone, there’s a topic they know well or a skill they have that many other people don’t have. That niche can spell opportunity – and a chance to turn something you enjoy doing anyway into a money-maker.

Depending on the type of hobby you want to monetize, your startup expenses may be quite low. For writing, coding, or graphic design, you might only need a laptop or tablet – something you may already have. If your hobby is fixing up old cars, however, you might need a place to do the work – possibly adding to the expense. For that scenario, you could check out the possibility of putting in a couple of Saturdays per month at a local shop to help save on rent and insurance costs.

With a little ingenuity, you might be able to earn $10 to $40 (or maybe more) per hour doing work you enjoy. Artists can earn extra money by selling arts and crafts items through virtual stores on specialized websites. Freelance writers, coders, designers, and even teachers can find work as well on similar type websites that bring clients and service providers together. If you have a knack for knowing what’s valuable, you may be able to turn garage sale and estate sale buys into a rewarding online business on any popular consumer-to-consumer and/or business-to-consumer sales website. (Hint: If this is something you’d like to try, start out small. Concentrate on one type of item that might be near and dear to you, like brass musical instruments, or antique mason jars.)

The old saying that asserts “knowledge is power” applies here as well. Let’s say your childhood fascination with dinosaurs never quite went extinct. Maybe there’s a successful educational blog or a YouTube channel in your future. Technology has given us the power to reach a larger audience than ever before and to bring our knowledge to anyone who wants to learn more. Sharing what you know can be monetized in many ways and – if you love doing it – you might not feel like you’re working at all!

Do your research and understand any legal or insurance requirements that may apply to the area you want to get into, but don’t let a little legwork bar the way to your next great endeavor – even if it just starts as a side gig.

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Should You Buy Or Lease Your Next Vehicle?

December 7, 2020

Should You Buy Or Lease Your Next Vehicle?

Behind housing costs, transportation costs are often one of the top expenses in most households.

Auto leasing has been popular for several decades, but many people still aren’t sure about the sensibility of leasing vs. buying a car, how the math works, and which is really the better value.

Should you lease a car?
In many cases, you can lease a car for less than the monthly payment for financing the exact same car. This is because with leasing, you never build any equity in the vehicle. Essentially, you are renting the vehicle for a predetermined number of miles per year with a promise that you’ll take good care of it and won’t let your kids spill ice cream on the seats. (After all, it’s not really your car.)

At the end of the lease – most often 2 or 3 years – you’ll have the option to buy the car. At this point, in many cases you would be able to find a comparable car for a few thousand less than the residual value on the car you leased. After the lease has expired, most people choose to lease another newer car, rather than buy the car they leased.

If you don’t drive many miles, there may be some advantages to leasing over buying, particularly if you prefer to drive something newer or if you need a late-model car for business reasons. As a bonus, for short-term or standard leases, the car is usually under warranty for the duration of the lease and maintenance costs are typically only for minor service items.

Should you buy a car?
If you’re like most people, when you buy a car, you’ll probably need to finance it rather than plunk down a lump sum in cash. Rates are relatively low, but you can still expect to pay a few thousand dollars in interest costs over the course of the loan. Longer loans have higher rates and more expensive vehicles can make the interest costs add up quickly. Still, at the end of the loan, you own the car.

Older cars usually have higher maintenance costs, but it may be less expensive to keep a car with under 150,000 miles and pay for any repairs, rather than make payments on a new car. Cars are also running reliably much longer now. Let’s say your car runs for about 2 years. If you had a 5-year loan, you could be driving for 7 years (or more) without having to make a car payment.

So a big part of the savings in buying a car vs. leasing can occur if you keep the car for several years after it’s paid off. Cars depreciate most rapidly during the first 5 years of ownership, meaning you could take a big hit on the trade-in value during that time. Keeping the car for a bit longer puts you into a period where the car is depreciating less rapidly and you can benefit financially from not having a car payment. But if you think you might be tempted to trade the car in after 5 years (and you typically drive under 15,000 miles per year), you may want to take a closer look at leasing.

Getting behind the wheel
It’s really up to your personal preference whether you buy or lease. If you like to rotate your vehicles so you can enjoy a new car every few years and not have to worry so much about maintenance, then leasing may be a better option. However, if you like the idea of not having to make a car payment for a good portion of the life of your car, then buying may be the right choice.

Either way, before you take the keys and drive off the lot, make sure to ask your dealer any questions you have, so you can fully understand all the terms and any underlying costs for your situation.

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Which Debt Should You Pay Off First?

Which Debt Should You Pay Off First?

Nearly every type of debt can interfere with your financial goals, making you feel like a hamster on a wheel – constantly running but never actually getting anywhere.

If you’ve been trying to dig yourself out of a debt hole, it’s time to take a break and look at the bigger picture.

Did you know there are often advantages to paying off certain types of debt before other types? What the simple list below doesn’t include is the average interest rates or any tax benefits to a given type of debt, which can change your priorities. Let’s check them out!

Credit Cards
For most households, credit card debt is the place to start – stop spending on credit and start making extra payments whenever possible. Think of it as an investment in your future!

Auto Loans
Interest rates for auto loans are usually much lower than credit card debt, often under 5% on newer loans. Interest rates aren’t the only consideration for auto loans though. New cars depreciate nearly 20% in the first year. In years 2 and 3, you can expect the value to drop another 15% each year. The moral of the story is that cars are a terrible investment but offer great utility. There’s also no tax benefit for auto loan interest. Eliminating debt as fast as possible on a rapidly depreciating asset is a sound decision.

Student Loans
Like auto loans, student loans are usually in the range of 5% to 10% interest. While interest rates are similar to car loans, student loan interest is often tax deductible, which can lower your effective rate. Auto loans can usually be paid off faster than student loan debt, allowing more cash flow to apply to student debt, investment accounts, or other needs.

Mortgage Debt
In most cases, mortgage debt is the last type of debt to pay down. Mortgage rates are usually lower than the interest rates for credit card debt, auto loans, or student loans, and mortgage interest may be tax deductible if structured properly. If mortgage debt keeps you awake at night, paying off other types of debt first will give you greater cash flow each month so you can begin paying down your mortgage.

When you’ve paid off your other debt and are ready to start tackling your mortgage, try paying bi-monthly (every two weeks). This simple strategy has the effect of adding one extra mortgage payment each year, reducing a 30-year loan term by several years. Because the payments are spread out instead of making one (large) 13th payment, it’s likely you won’t even notice the extra expense.

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4 Easy Tips To Build Your Emergency

November 30, 2020

4 Easy Tips To Build Your Emergency

Nearly one quarter of Americans and almost half of Canadians have no emergency savings, according to a recent report. (1&2)

Without an emergency fund, you can imagine that an unexpected expense could send your budget into a tailspin. That’s why building an emergency fund is so important. You CAN do this!

4 tips to building your emergency fund

Where to keep your emergency fund
Keeping money in the cookie jar might not be the best plan. Mattresses don’t really work so well either. But you also don’t want your emergency fund “co-mingled” with the money in your normal checking or savings account. The goal is to keep your emergency fund separate, clearly defined, and easily accessible. Setting up a designated, high-yield savings account is a good option that can provide quick access to your money while keeping it separate from your main bank accounts.

Set a monthly goal for savings
Set a monthly goal for your emergency fund savings, but also make sure you keep your savings goal realistic. If you choose an overly ambitious goal, you may be less likely to reach that goal consistently, which might make the process of building your emergency fund a frustrating experience. (Your emergency fund is supposed to help reduce stress, not increase it!) It’s okay to start by putting aside a small amount until you have a better understanding of how much you can really “afford” to save each month. Also, once you have your high-yield savings account set up, you can automatically transfer funds to your savings account every time you get paid. One less thing to worry about!

Spare change can add up quickly
The convenience of debit and credit cards means that we use less cash these days – but if and when you do pay with cash, take the change and put it aside. When you have enough change to be meaningful, maybe $20 to $30, deposit that into your emergency fund. Look into ways of automating your savings to make putting away money seamless and hassle free!

Get to know your budget
Making and keeping a budget may not always be the most enjoyable pastime. But once you get it set up and stick to it for a few months, you’ll get some insight into where your money is going, and how better to keep a handle on it! Hopefully that will motivate you to keep going, and keep working towards your larger goals. When you first get started, dig out your bank statements and write down recurring expenses, or types of expenses that occur frequently. Odds are pretty good that you’ll find some expenses that aren’t strictly necessary. Look for ways to moderate your spending on frills without taking all the fun out of life. By moderating your expenses and eliminating the truly wasteful indulgences, you’ll probably find money to spare each month and you’ll be well on your way to building your emergency fund.

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(1) Maurie Backman, “Nearly 50% of Americans Don’t Have Enough Emergency Savings to Get Through the COVID-19 Crisis”, the Motley Fool, March 27, 2020.

(2) Steve Randall, “Almost half of Canadians have no emergency fund”, Which Mortgage, January 9, 2019.


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What Does “Pay Yourself First” Mean?

November 23, 2020

What Does “Pay Yourself First” Mean?

Bills, bills, mortgage payment, another bill, maybe some coupons for things you never buy, and of course, more bills.

There seems to be an endless stream of envelopes from companies all demanding payment for their products and services. It feels like you have a choice of what you want to do with your money ONLY after all the bills have been paid – if there’s anything left over, that is.

More times than not it might seem like there’s more ‘month’ than ‘dollar.’
Not to rub salt in the wound, but may I ask how much you’re saving each month? $100? $50? Nothing? You may have made a plan and come up with a rock-solid budget in the past, but let’s get real. One month’s expenditures can be very different than another’s. Birthdays, holidays, last-minute things the kids need for school, a spontaneous weekend getaway, replacing that 12-year-old dishwasher that doesn’t sound exactly right, etc., can make saving a fixed amount each month a challenge. Some months you may actually be able to save something, and some months you can’t. The result is that setting funds aside each month becomes an uncertainty.

Although this situation might appear at first benign (i.e. it’s just the way things are), the impact of this uncertainty can have far-reaching negative consequences.

Here’s why: If you don’t know how much you can save each month, then you don’t know how much you can save each year. If you don’t know how much you can save each year, then you don’t know how much you’ll have put away 2, 5, 10, or 20 years from now. Will you have enough saved for retirement?

If you have a goal in mind like buying a home in 10 years or retiring at 65, then you also need a realistic plan that will help you get there.
Truth is, most of us don’t have a wealthy relative who might unexpectedly leave us an inheritance we never knew existed!

But you might be surprised by much you can save if you put your mind to it. And you might want to do that… but how do you do that?

The secret is to “pay yourself first.”
The first “bill” you pay each month is to yourself. Shifting your focus each month to a “pay yourself first” mentality is subtle, but it can potentially be life changing. Let’s say for example you make $3,000 per month after taxes. You would put aside $300 (10%) right off the bat, leaving you $2,700 for the rest of your bills. This tactic makes saving $300 per month a certainty. The answer to how much you would be saving each month would always be: “At least $300.” If you stash this in an interest-bearing account, imagine how high this can grow over time if you continue to contribute that $300.

That’s exciting! But at this point you might be thinking, “I can’t afford to save 10% of my income every month because the leftovers aren’t enough for me to live my lifestyle.” If that’s the case, rather than reducing the amount you save, it might be worthwhile to consider if it’s the lifestyle you can’t afford.

Ultimately, paying yourself first means you’re making your future financial goals a priority, and that’s a bill worth paying.

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The Advantages Of Paying With Cash

November 18, 2020

The Advantages Of Paying With Cash

Debit cards are convenient.

Just swipe and go. Even more so for their mobile phone equivalents. We like fast, we like easy, and we like a good sale. But are we actually spending more by not using cash like we did in the good old days?

When using plastic, the reality of the expense doesn’t sink in until the statement arrives. And even then it may not carry the same weight. After all, you only need to make the minimum payment, right? With cash, we’re more cautious – and that’s not a bad thing.

Try an experiment for a week: pay only with cash. When you pay with cash, the expense feels real – even when it might be relatively small. Hopefully, you’ll get a sense that you’re parting with something of value in exchange for something else. You might start to ask yourself things like “Do I need this new comforter set that’s on sale – a really good sale – or, do I just want this new comforter set because it’s really cute (and it’s on sale)?” You might find yourself paying more attention to how much things cost when making purchases, and weighing that against your budget.

If you find that you have money left over at the end of the week (and you probably will because who likes to see nothing when they open their wallet), put the cash aside in an envelope and give it a label. You can call it anything you want, like “Movie Night,” for example.

As the weeks go on, you’re likely to amass a respectable amount of cash in your “rewards” fund. You might even be dreaming about what to do with that money now. You can buy something special. You can save it. The choice is yours. Well done on saving your hard-earned cash.

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5 Things You Can Do With A Bonus

November 16, 2020

5 Things You Can Do With A Bonus

It’s your lucky day and you’re flush with cash.

Maybe you just got a bonus at work, or a tax refund, or won that scratch-off lottery ticket.

Hold up. Don’t spend it all just yet. There are some great ways you can put that windfall to work for you before it disappears during a spontaneous shopping spree.

1. Pay off those credit cards
This may not seem like quite as much fun as the Paris vacation you were daydreaming about – but paying down debt is like finding money every single month. Every $100 you pay in interest equals about $130 you’d have to earn when you consider taxes. Paying down debt is the fastest way to give yourself a monthly raise if you come into some unexpected cash.

2. Save it
Experts recommend that you have enough savings to cover at least 3 to 6 months of expenses. This is the perfect opportunity to break away from the statistics and get prepared. Consider a high-yield checking account that allows easy access to your savings.

3. Put it in the college fund
If you have kids, this is a great time to contribute to the college fund or to start one if you haven’t already. Tuition can range from around $10,000 for in-state public schools to nearly $35,000 for private schools (1). And that’s not counting books and boarding! It’s never too early to give your kids a head start!

4. Invest in yourself
This might be the perfect chance to finish off those last few credits for a degree or to earn that certification you’ve been wanting but couldn’t justify spending money to complete. If you choose carefully, the right degree or certification can open doors in your career, potentially enhancing your earning power and helping you break out of the holding pattern.

5. Take a vacation
Maybe it’s a trip to Paris or maybe it’s someplace else you’ve always wanted to go. If all the above are in good shape, go ahead and treat yourself. You deserve it!

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(1) Justin Song, “Average Cost of college in America”, ValuePenguin, 2020


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