How to Avoid Credit Card Fees

 

Credit card distributors always advertise handsome promotional rates just to allure potential cardholders. If you want to become a new cardholder, you must watch out for credit card fees. Although they offer the lowest of interest rates, the credit card company will definitely be getting back at you by embedding extra fees. How to avoid paying them more than what you owe?

Many people just rush into applying to get a credit card without even being aware of all of the accumulated costs. Almost all credit cards come with some hidden fees and unknown charges; and you should always pay extra attention to them before applying.

Almost all cases, all of these fees and extra charges will not even be noticed until it is too late. And you easily end up paying thousands in the end without even realizing it.

Here are some tips to help guide you in avoiding excess credit card fees:

Pay the bill ahead of time

Never wait until you’re the due date arrives before settling payment. Pay off all the necessary charges as soon as you got cash to do it. It is required that all credit card issuers provide at least 28 days grace period.

Try to sign up for an automatic payment facility especially if you are prone to forgetting monthly due dates. This very ideal for people who have multiple credit cards and those who are managing many types of credit lines like car loans, mortgage, and personal loans.

Request for waive

In some cases, wherein an emergency could not be avoided, at the same time you will not be able to make your payment on time, try to call the credit card company immediately and request them to waive some late payment fees and promise to make your next month’s payment on time. In addition, if your records prove that you have become a very reliable client, chances are, you may be granted that wish, thus avoiding additional credit card fees.

Do not go over the credit limit

It is obvious that exceeding your credit limit will automatically cost you extra fees on your bill. Always check your credit account to assure that all the charges are accurate. Before making a large purchase using a credit card, be sure that you have enough credit left. And always keep your credit card spending to just a minimal portion.

Don’t borrow cash from your card

All credit cards offer cash advance features. This provides the cardholder an option to get from their account by withdrawing cash thru the ATM. Although it seems like a good provision, especially in times of emergency, these are charged with very high interest rate. And cash advances are not automatically covered by the grace period; you will incur extra credit card fees every time you make cash withdrawal.

ETFs: Your free guide to exchange-traded funds

An exchange-traded fund (ETF) is a security that tracks a particular index or basket of assets. This could be the FTSE 100 or a selection of shares of companies involved in alternative energy.

ETFs are traded on the stock market, just like ordinary shares. So they can be bought and sold whenever the market is open, at a regularly updated price. By contrast, passive unit trusts – a rival tracking product – can only be dealt with once a day and only through the issuing manager.

Even though ETFs trade like ordinary shares, they don’t attract stamp duty when they’re purchased.

Diversification and cost benefits

ETFs offer exposure to an entire index, usually at relatively low cost. They are not actively managed, which means there is no need to pay fat salaries to a fund manager. As a result, annual expenses paid by the ETF investor are relatively low, typically between 0.2 and 0.75 percent of funds invested.

What’s more, ETFs are not subject to an initial charge or set-up fee, as is the case with unit trusts. The only costs when dealing are the standard brokerage commission and the spread – the difference between the prices at which you can buy and sell.

What’s on offer?

Today, the range of ETFs on offer is wider than ever before, covering an ever-expanding array of national indices, industrial sectors, commodities, futures, bonds, and other asset classes.

Consequently, it is now much easier for private investors to gain exposure to a range of previously inaccessible markets. There are also opportunities to achieve double or treble returns, as well as to sell short.

Index and specialist ETFs

Besides mainstream ETFs that track the world’s top indices such as the FTSE 100 or the Dow Jones, you can also buy or short sell individual industries such as mining or financial services. So, if you were bullish on the stock market in general but bearish about miners, you could buy an index ETF while short selling a mining ETF.

As well as national stock markets such as China or Brazil, ETFs cover segments of the market, such as mid-sized or small companies, and also entire geographic regions such as Europe or Asia.

Away from equities, there are ETFs that track commodity indices, government and company debt, real estate, private equity, and currencies.

Profit when markets fall

Whereas unit trusts generally only benefit when the markets they track go up, there is a type of ETF that gains in value when their underlying market falls. Short ETFs provide a mirror image of whatever the price of the underlying asset does. So if oil falls, they rise.

However, in terms of the equity-linked indexes, these types of ETFs are only really suitable for sophisticated traders. This is because the price of the benchmark index is re-set daily, and the returns are compounded – so, even if the index is down over an extended period, an investor who held on through volatile trading conditions could still conceivably lose money even if he was right in his prediction of a fall in the underlying.

Exchange-traded commodities

Originally, the large size of commodity futures contracts prevented small investors from getting direct exposure to commodities. With the advent of exchange-traded commodities (ETCs), the minimum financial outlay has been markedly reduced, thereby easing the way for private investors.

ETCs track the performance of individual commodities such as copper, petroleum or wheat, or even total return indices based on a single commodity. For example, many investors have recently gained exposure to physical gold for the first time through the use of ETCs such as ETFS Physical Gold (code: PHAU), which has been designed to provide a return equivalent to movements in the gold spot price. Currently, around 70 percent of private investment is allocated to precious metals, while 15 percent is given over to energy ETCs.

If, however, you want to spread your risk, you could always opt for an ETF that invests in a more diversified basket of commodities, such as the ETFs All Commodities ETF (AIGC). This has been structured to track the DJ-AIG Commodity index.

Government and corporate bonds

ETFs have also made it much easier for private investors seeking to buy into the government and corporate bond market. As ETFs are traded on the stock exchange, both historic and real-time pricing must be made readily available. Such price transparency was once the preserve of institutional investors, so ETFs have done much to open up this market.

As most bonds are held till maturity, the main problem facing those structuring a bond ETF is ensuring that it is comprised of enough liquid bonds to track a particular index. (This is more of a problem for corporate as opposed to government bonds). For this reason, representative sampling is often employed, which involves reducing coverage of an ETF to the most liquid of the bonds, and is a feature of ETFs such as the iShares Euro Corporate Bond (IBCX), which offers exposure to a range of euro-denominated investment-grade corporate bonds.

Tracking issues

Tracking errors pertaining to the bulk of ETFs and ETNs currently in issue remain relatively small, according to recent research from Morgan Stanley. Despite extreme market volatility, these instruments demonstrated close alignment to most indexes. Last year, the weighted average tracking error for all US ETFs was just 0.39 percent.

This is not to say, however, that negative tracking errors do not occur. Some specialist ETFs, or those subject to diversification requirements, haven’t always fared well, and the process of representative sampling (referred to above) is another factor that can lead to tracking errors.

The Vanguard Telecom Services ETF (VOX) and the iShares FTSE NAREIT Mortgage REITs (REM) both fell short of their tracking indexes last year. Additionally, investors need to remember that ETFs with larger expense ratios tend to have higher tracking errors simply because fees come directly out of investors’ returns.

Interest and distribution payments

Bond ETFs pay out interest through a monthly distribution, while any capital gains are paid out on an annual basis, fewer fees, and expenses. Holders of share-backed ETFs are also eligible to receive payments in the form of a pro-rata share of dividends payable on the portfolio of stocks comprising a given ETF.

It may be possible in some instances to reinvest your dividend payments. Dividends paid out of an ETF’s net investment income or net short-term capital gains – if any – are both taxable as ordinary income. Distributions of net long-term capital gains, in excess of any net short-term capital losses, are taxable as long-term capital gains.

Tips on how to manage money when you get a raise

A raise can be a boon to your household finances. Although it is tempting to immediately spend the entire raise on a new car, handbag, laptop, or gadget, there are several considerations that should be addressed before you splurge.

The first thing you should do if you get a significant raise is checking your tax situation. There are some instances when the raise pushes your income into the next tax bracket. Most employers will automatically adjust your withholding, but if you are already claiming zero exemptions, you may need to have an additional amount withheld in order to avoid penalties. This will require an updated W-4 form.

The next thing to consider is your retirement contributions. If you have access to a 401(k) account from your employer and your employer offers matching funds, you should contribute at least enough to the account to receive the full company match. Even if your fund choices are meager, the employer match is free money that is available to fund your retirement. If your 401(k) offers low-cost mutual funds or index funds, consider increasing your contribution to the federal maximum. In 2009, the maximum annual contribution is $16,500 or $22,000 if you are over 50.

When considering a significant 401(k) contribution, keep in mind that every employer has slightly different limitations that may prevent you from contributing to the federal maximum. One limitation is the maximum percentage limit or the maximum percentage of your pay that you are allowed to contribute and shield from taxes. The second limitation is the highly compensated employee (HCE) income limit. Employees that have an annual income greater than the HCE limit will have their maximum contribution lowered or even reduced to $0.

If you do not have access to a 401(k) account or you are contributing the maximum amount, consider saving most or all of your raise in an IRA or a savings vehicle. The savings vehicle should be chosen based on your timeline. Money earmarked for an emergency fund should be liquid, either in a high-interest savings account or in a combination of savings and a short-term (under two years) CD ladder. Money designated for large expenses should be in a CD ladder with a timeline based on when you expect to incur the expenses.

Finally, if you are able to fully fund a 401(k) or another retirement account, an emergency fund, and a large expense fund, use some of your raise as a reward for your fiscal responsibility, but keep in mind that a permanent boost in your standard of living may put you at risk for living beyond your means in the future.

When Should You Start Social Security Benefits?

When should you elect to receive Social Security benefits – at age 62, full retirement age (which is gradually increasing from age 65 to age 67), or age 70? The decision will permanently affect your Social Security benefits. Start at age 62, and your benefits will be permanently reduced by 20.8% to 30%, depending on your year of birth. Wait until age 70, and your benefits will increase by 3.5% to 8% annually, depending on your year of birth.

Since Social Security benefits probably won’t be sufficient to maintain your current standard of living, first decide whether you have sufficient retirement resources even to consider retiring at age 62. If that is not an issue, keep in mind that it will take approximately 12 years for someone electing benefits at age 65 to receive the same total benefits as someone electing reduced benefits at age 62. It takes approximately 11 to 14 years for someone electing increased benefits at age 70 to receive the same total benefits as someone electing benefits at full retirement age. You may want to calculate precise numbers for your situation since your full retirement age and the percentage reduction in benefits at age 62 will impact your answer.

For most individuals, the long payback period may make it worthwhile to start benefits at age 62. And in fact, more than 60% of retirees elect for benefits before age 65, while less than 2% wait until age 70 (Source: U.S. News & World Report, June 3, 2002). But there are a couple of situations where you might want to wait until full retirement age.

If you plan to continue working, consider delaying benefits. Individuals who have attained full retirement age can earn any amount of wages without losing any Social Security benefits. However, between the ages of 62 and 65, you lose $1 of benefits for every $2 of earnings over $11,520 in 2003. Between the ages of 65 and your full retirement age, you lose $1 in benefits for every $3 of earnings over $30,720 in 2003. Individuals earning substantially more than these limits will probably want to wait to start Social Security benefits.

If your spouse is significantly younger and is counting on your benefits, you may also want to delay benefits. While you are alive, your spouse is entitled to the larger of 100% of his/her benefit based on his/her earnings or 50% of your benefit at full retirement age. However, if you elect benefits before the full retirement age, your spouse’s benefits will be reduced by a higher percentage than your benefits were reduced, provided he/she obtains benefits based on your earnings. If you delay benefits past full retirement age, you receive increased benefits, but your spouse’s benefits remain the same, provided he/she obtains benefits based on your earnings.

After your death, your spouse’s benefits are based on your benefits and the age he/she elects to receive benefits. He/she receives 100% of your benefit, provided your spouse is over the full retirement age. If he/she is younger than full retirement age, your spouse receives between 71.5% and 100% of those benefits. Thus, the larger your benefit is, the larger your spouse’s benefit will be after your death.

Getting Your Portfolio Back on Track

The recent market declines have been steeper and of longer duration than many expected, making it difficult to determine how to adjust your portfolio.

Should you leave it alone, hoping the market will quickly rebound to much higher levels? Or should you sell everything and put your money in cash accounts?

The appropriate answer probably lies somewhere between those two extremes. What you should do is thoroughly review your portfolio. Consider these tips when analyzing your portfolio:

Take another look at your financial goals.

Now it’s time to face reality. If your portfolio declined substantially in the past three years, it would probably affect your financial goals. Recalculate how much you need to save on an annual basis, based on your investments’ current value and a reasonable future rate of return.

Be prepared to readjust your goals. For many people, one of the most painful results of the market declines has been the realization that they are now going to have to delay retirement.

Set an asset allocation strategy for the long term.

The most basic investment decision you’ll make is how to allocate your portfolio among the various investment categories, such as cash, bonds, and stocks. You want to ensure your portfolio is diversified among various investments, so when one category is declining, other categories will be increasing or not decreasing as much. To decide how to allocate your portfolio, you’ll first need to come to terms with your risk tolerance.

Factors like your time horizon for investing and return expectations will also impact your decision. Once you’ve decided on an asset allocation strategy, you’ll need to adjust your current portfolio to get it in line with that allocation.

Thoroughly review each investment in your portfolio and decide whether you should continue to own it.

Some stocks will rebound from the recent market declines, while others may never rebound. If you think an investment won’t rebound or will take a long time to do so, you may want to sell it and reinvest in others with better prospects. It’s a painful thing to do since most investors have an aversion to selling at a loss. But it’s an important step to ensure your portfolio is on track going forward.

Also, make sure your remaining investments are all adding diversification benefits to your portfolio. Just because you own a number of investments doesn’t mean you are properly diversified. Often, investors keep purchasing investments similar in nature. That doesn’t add much in the way of diversification and makes the portfolio difficult to monitor.

Look for investments you’ll be comfortable owning for the long term.

It’s tempting to look for the biggest winners in investments and put your money there. In essence, however, you are chasing yesterday’s winners rather than tomorrow’s winners.

You need to keep in mind that the best-performing investment category will change from year to year. A better strategy may be to select a diversified portfolio of investments you’ll be comfortable owning for the long term, so you have some money invested in each of the major investment categories.

Use dollar cost averaging to invest.

If you’ve been investing throughout the market declines, you have probably been purchasing at lower and lower prices, making you wonder whether it makes sense to keep putting money in the market. The point of dollar cost averaging is to invest a set amount of money in a certain investment on a periodic basis. When prices are lower, you will purchase more shares than when prices are higher, following half of the investing principle of “buy low and sell high.”

But the most important part of dollar cost averaging is that it forces you to continue investing when you really don’t want to invest. In the long run, when and if the stock market rebounds, you will probably be glad you had the discipline to continue investing during this market downturn. (Keep in mind that dollar-cost averaging does not guarantee a profit or protect against losses.

Because it involves continuous investment regardless of fluctuating price levels, you should consider your ability to continue investing through periods of low price levels.)

Pay attention to taxes.

Taxes are probably your portfolio’s largest expense. Ordinary income taxes on short-term capital gains, interest, and dividends can go as high as 38.6%, while long-term capital gains are taxed at rates not exceeding 20% (10% if you are in the 15% tax bracket). Using strategies that defer income for as long as possible can make a substantial difference in the ultimate size of your portfolio.

Some strategies to consider include utilizing tax-deferred investment vehicles (such as 401(k) plans and individual retirement accounts), minimizing portfolio turnover, selling investments with losses to offset gains, and placing assets generating ordinary income or that you want to trade frequently in your tax-deferred accounts.

Review your portfolio at least annually.

You can’t just adjust your portfolio now and leave it on autopilot. You need to keep an eye on your portfolio in case market, or company situations require changes. By reviewing your portfolio annually, you’ll have an opportunity to make adjustments on an ongoing basis, which should prevent major overhauls in the future.