Hitting the Books Again? Here’s How to Financially Prepare for Grad School

Deia Schlosberg had been working as an environmental educator, teaching students about issues concerning conservation and sustainability. While she loved teaching, she wanted to reach people on a larger scale about the importance of protecting the environment. So she decided to follow her dream of becoming a filmmaker—a dream that would require her to return to school for a graduate degree. She had no idea at the time that it would lead to becoming an award-winning documentarian.

While Schlosberg’s choice may have paid off, learning how to pay for grad school as a working adult can be a challenge. There are various benefits to getting an advanced degree: You can learn more, you can earn more, you can further advance in your current job or prepare for a career change. However, you might also find yourself stressed by the expense and resulting debt of it all, especially if you have kids, a home or other financial commitments. So a big question on your mind could be, “How much should I save for grad school?”

To financially prepare for grad school it’s important to weigh the benefits and stressors that surround getting an advanced degree.

Below are some lessons on how to financially prepare for grad school to help you determine if and when you should go back to school. If you haven’t yet decided if graduate school is right for you, see section 1 for tips on how to decide. If you already know you want to go back to school, skip to section 2.

1. Decide if going back to school is right for you

Getting an advanced degree may seem like a ticket to success, but depending on your chosen area of study, the outcome may vary. For Schlosberg, it was a bit of a risk. It can be difficult to get a break in the film industry, and going to grad school could mean carrying around debt for a long time. Is this the type of outcome you would be willing to accept?

According to Emma Johnson, best-selling author, career consultant and founder of Wealthysinglemommy.com, there are a few things you can do to help you decide whether or not going back to school is right for you:

  • Do your homework. When considering how to pay for grad school as a working adult, research your degree options and the jobs to which they might lead. Compare cost and compatibility—for instance, will classes for the program align with your work schedule? Once you’ve determined what kind of occupation you may pursue after grad school, search online for information about that occupation’s average earnings.
  • Solidify your goals. You may find clarity in writing out your goals for going back to school. Some benefits are tangible, like earning more money, building a professional network and gaining skills. Others might be less tangible, such as finding personal fulfillment. Once you know your goals, it will be easier to determine if a graduate degree makes personal and professional sense.

“Your savings should not only depend on tuition but also what the degree is—i.e., how easy it will be to repay once you are working in the desired field.”

– Deia Schlosberg, filmmaker
  • Give your degree program a test run. Consider taking classes that relate to the degree you are interested in getting in grad school. These classes can give you a taste of the subject matter you’ll be studying and help you meet people involved in the field. Also, if prerequisites are required for your advanced degree, they often cost less online or at a community college, which is important to remember when thinking about how to prepare your finances before grad school. Make sure the course credits will be accepted at the graduate school you plan to attend.
  • Take a hands-on approach. To level up in your existing career or find out what it’s like in a new field before making the change, get some work-related experience first. For instance, to learn more about moving up in your own field, get out and meet those higher level professionals by attending conferences and networking events. The same tactic applies if you want to change careers.

2. Know how much you need to save

How to pay for grad school as a working adult can be complicated, but you’ve decided you’re ready for it. Plus, hitting the books at a time when saving for retirement or your child’s education could be at the forefront makes the task of how to prepare your finances before grad school even more critical.

Understanding how to prepare your finances before grad school becomes more complicated if you’re also budgeting for a retirement plan or child’s education.

Figuring out how much to save for grad school begins with determining the cost of attendance. Here are a couple ways to do that, according to Johnson:

  • Do the research. Once you have found a school and degree that you like, visit the school’s web site. Some schools may provide the cost of tuition, fees and estimated costs for books, supplies and transportation. Costs can vary tremendously, depending on various factors: whether you attend full or part time, whether you attend a public or private school, whether you are an in-state or out-of-state resident and the time it takes to get your degree.
  • Determine your budget. Once you have a handle on the school-related costs, build a spreadsheet that accounts for these costs and projects monthly income and living expenses. Working through a savings plan beforehand can help you financially prepare for grad school by showing just how much you’ll need to budget for monthly on tuition plus living expenses. Once you determine these factors, you’ll get a better idea of what you need to save up.
  • Create a savings buffer. After you determine your monthly costs, pad that number. “Your savings should not only depend on tuition but also what the degree is—i.e., how easy it will be to repay once you are working in the desired field,” Schlosberg says. She saved a little more than she estimated, giving herself an extra cushion to cover some of the potential risk to her finances.

“You may have to downscale your career and current lifestyle to go back to school, which may be a worthwhile investment of time and resources.”

– Emma Johnson, career consultant

3. Allow yourself a flexible timeline

One key factor in planning the timeline for earning your graduate degree: Don’t be in a rush. If you need to, create the time to save. It may not be necessary to go back to school full time or finish on a particular schedule, Johnson says. She mentions these possible paths to earning your degree when planning how to pay for grad school as a working adult:

  • Consider a side hustle. One option is to go to school full time and take on a side hustle. You may not make as much as you did as a full-time employee, but the income can complement your savings. It may also allow you to concentrate more on your degree and finish faster.
  • Attend part time. Go to school part time (nights and weekends) while working. It will take longer, but it will also minimize your debt, which could be better in the long run.
  • Take it slowly. Only sign up for a class or two—whatever you can afford—and continue to work. This part-time “lite” approach may take even longer, but could help you avoid overextending yourself financially or sliding into debt.
  • Take online classes. Consider online programs that could lower the cost of tuition and allow you to continue working full time.
If you’re wondering how to pay for grad school as a working adult, consider attending school part time and taking online classes.

4. Take advantage of potential cost-saving benefits

So you’ve done your research on how much you need to save while determining how to prepare your finances before grad school. But there are ways to potentially cut or eliminate some of those costs. What comes next are some solutions that may help pay your grad school bills:

  • Consider loans, financial aid and scholarships. “I took out some student loans for living expenses, but I tried to pay off my tuition as I went by working through school,” Schlosberg says. Graduate students may also be eligible for different types of scholarships and grants, which is aid that does not need to be paid back. Depending on your area of study, scholarships and grants can also be obtained through federal and state organizations, private foundations, public companies and professional organizations.
  • Ask your employer to pay the tuition. One way to financially prepare for grad school is to talk to your manager or human resources representative to find out if your current employer would help pay for, or fully fund, your degree through tuition reimbursement. This is most likely if you plan to move up the ladder and use your new skills on behalf of the company.
  • Take advantage of in-state tuition. Some people move to the same state as their desired school to try to get a break on tuition. “I moved to Montana and worked a couple jobs for a year before applying so I could get in-state tuition,” says Schlosberg. Whether you are already a resident or you move to a new state, be sure to determine how long you need to be a resident to qualify for in-state tuition at your desired university.
  • Cut back on discretionary expenses. Seemingly small things like adjusting your lifestyle to lower your monthly costs, which could mean fewer lattes and dinners out, might go a long way in resolving how to prepare your finances before grad school. “You may have to downscale your career and current lifestyle to go back to school, which may be a worthwhile investment of time and resources,” Johnson says.
When determining how to financially prepare for graduate school, consider scholarships, in-state tuition and tuition reimbursement.

Financially prepare for grad school and get a new start

Answering the question of how to pay for grad school as a working adult requires significant research and preparation, but some say it’s worth it, including Schlosberg. It not only gave her a whole new start, but a wealth of knowledge going forward to nurture her future endeavors. “Getting a graduate degree gave me the confidence to jump into a new career. I met an amazing network of people,” Schlosberg says.

But an advanced degree may not be a necessity. While it could look impressive on a resume, for many employers, a master’s degree is not a requirement. “Whatever you do, don’t go back to school just for the sake of getting a degree,” Johnson says. When thinking about how to financially prepare for graduate school, make sure it fits into your financial picture and that you’re able to “weigh your sacrifices against future gains,” she says.

The post Hitting the Books Again? Here’s How to Financially Prepare for Grad School appeared first on Discover Bank – Banking Topics Blog.

Source: discover.com

How Much Should You Spend on Rent?

One of the most exciting parts of becoming an adult is moving out of your old place and starting your own life. However, as is the case with most major life events, moving out comes with a lot of added responsibility. Part of this duty is knowing and understanding your budget when shopping for the perfect apartment, condo, duplex, or rental house. So how much should you really spend on rent?

The 30 Percent Threshold

The first step in deciding how much you should spend on rent is calculating how much rent you can afford. This is done by finding your fixed income-to-rent ratio. Simply put, this is the percentage of your income that is budgeted towards rent.

As a general rule of thumb, allocating 30 percent of your net income towards rent is a good place to start. Government studies consider people who spend more than 30 percent on living expenses to be “cost-burdened,” and those who spend 50 percent or more to be “severely cost-burdened.”

When calculating your income-to-rent ratio, keep in mind that you should be using your total household income. If you live with a roommate or partner, be sure to factor in their income as well to ensure you’re finding a rent range that’s appropriate for your income level.

If you’re still unsure as to how much rent you can afford, consider an affordability calculator. Remember to consult a financial advisor before entering into a lease if you’re unsure if you’ll be able to make rent.

Consider the 50/30/20 Rule

Consider the 50:30:20 Rule

After you’ve set a fixed income-to-rent ratio, consider the 50/20/30 rule to round out your budget. This rule suggests that 50 percent of your income goes to essentials, 20 percent goes to savings, and the remaining 30 percent goes to non-essential, personal expenses. In this case, rent falls under “essentials.” Also included in this category are any expenses that are absolutely necessary, such as utilities, food, and transportation.

Let’s consider a hypothetical situation in which you make $4,000 per month. Under the 50/20/30 rule with a fixed income-to-rent ratio of 30 percent, you have $2,000 (50 percent) per month to spend on essential living expenses. $1,200 (30 percent) goes to rent, leaving you with $800 per month for other necessary expenses such as utilities and food.

Remember to Budget for Additional Expenses

Now that you’ve budgeted for rent and essential utilities, it’s time to make a plan for how you’re going to furnish your apartment. One of the biggest shocks of moving out on your own is how expensive filling a home can be. From kitchen utensils to lightbulbs and everything in between, it can be pricey to make your space perfect.

For the most part, furniture falls under the 30 percent of personal, non-essential expenses. Consider planning ahead before a move and saving for home goods so that you don’t go into major debt when it comes time to move out.

Be on the Lookout for Savings

If your budget is slightly out of reach for your dream apartment, try to nix unnecessary costs to see if you can make it work. Look for ways to cut down on utilities, insurance, groceries, and rent.

Utilities: Water, heat, and electricity are all necessities, but your TV service isn’t. Cut the cord on TV and mobile services that may not serve you and your budget anymore. Consider swapping out your light bulbs for eco-friendly and energy-efficient light bulbs to cut down your electric bill.

Insurance: Instead of paying monthly renters insurance rates, save a fraction of the cost by paying your yearly cost in full. If you have a roommate, ask to share a policy together at a premium rate.

Groceries: Swap your nights out for a homemade meal. You can save up to $832 a year with this simple habit change. When grocery shopping, add up costs as you shop to ensure your budget stays on track.

Rent: One of the best ways to save on rent is to split the bill. Consider getting roommates to save 50 percent or more on your monthly rent.

A lease is not something to be entered into lightly. Biting off more rent than you can chew can lead to unpaid rent, which can damage your credit score and make it harder to find an apartment or buy a home in the future. By implementing these best practices, you’ll hopefully find a balance between finding a place you love and still having room in your budget for a little bit of fun.

Sources: US Census Bureau

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Affording a Second Child: How to Make Your Budget Work

Having kids is anything but cheap. According to the USDA, families can expect to spend an average of $233,610 raising a child born in 2015 through age 17—and that’s not including the cost of college. The cost of raising a child has also increased since your parents were budgeting for kids. Between 2000 and 2010, for example, the cost of having children increased by 40 percent.

If you’ve had your first child, you understand—from diapers to day care to future extracurricular activities, you know how it all adds up. You’ve already learned how to adjust your budget for baby number one. How hard can it be repeating the process a second time?

While you may feel like a parenting pro, overlooking tips to prepare financially for a second child could be bad news for your bank account. Fortunately, affording a second child is more than doable with the right planning.

If your family is about to expand, consider these budgeting tips for a second child:

1. Think twice about upsizing

When asking yourself, “Can I afford to have a second child?”, consider whether your current home and car can accommodate your growing family.

Think twice about upsizing your car or house if you're concerned about affording a second child.

Kimberly Palmer, personal finance expert at NerdWallet, says sharing bedrooms can be a major money-saver if you’re considering tips to prepare financially for a second child. Sharing might not be an option, however, if a second child would make an already small space feel even more cramped. Running the numbers through a mortgage affordability calculator can give you an idea of how much a bigger home might cost.

Swapping your current car out for something larger may also be on your mind if traveling with kids means doubling up on car seats and stowing a stroller and diaper bag onboard. But upgrading could mean adding an expensive car payment into your budget.

“Parents should first decide how much they can afford to spend on a car,” Palmer says.

Buying used can help stretch your budget when you’re trying to afford a second child—but don’t cut corners on cost if it means sacrificing the safety features you want.

Families can expect to spend an average of $233,610 raising a child born in 2015 through age 17—and that’s not including the cost of college.

– USDA

2. Be frugal about baby gear

It’s tempting to go out and buy all-new items for a second baby, but you may want to resist the urge. Palmer’s tips to prepare financially for a second child include reusing as much as you can from your first child. That might include clothes, furniture, blankets and toys.

Being frugal with family expenses can even extend past your own closet.

“If you live in a neighborhood with many children, you’ll often find other families giving away gently used items for free,” Palmer says. You may also want to scope out consignment shops and thrift stores for baby items, as well as online marketplaces and community forums. But similar to buying a used car, keep safety first when you’re using this budgeting tip for a second child.

“It’s important to check for recalls on items like strollers and cribs,” Palmer says. “You also want to make sure you have an up-to-date car seat that hasn’t been in any vehicle crashes.”

3. Weigh your childcare options

You may already realize how expensive day care can be for just one child, but that doesn’t mean affording a second child will be impossible.

A tip to prepare financially for a second child is to weigh your childcare options.

Michael Gerstman, chartered financial consultant and CEO of Gerstman Financial Group, LLC in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, says parents should think about the trade-off between both parents working if it means paying more for daycare. If one parent’s income is going solely toward childcare, for example, it could make more sense for that parent to stay at home.

Even if this budgeting tip for a second child is appealing, you’ll also want to think about whether taking time away from work to care for kids could make it difficult to get ahead later in your career, Palmer adds.

“If you stay home with your child, then you’re also potentially sacrificing future earnings,” she says.

4. Watch out for sneaky expenses

There are two major budgeting tips for a second child that can sometimes be overlooked: review grocery and utility costs.

If you’re buying formula or other grocery items for a newborn, that can quickly add to your grocery budget. That grocery budget may continue to grow as your second child does and transitions to solid food. Having a new baby could also mean bigger utility bills if you’re doing laundry more often or running more air conditioning or heat to accommodate your family spending more time indoors with the little one.

Gerstman recommends using a budgeting app as a tip to prepare financially for a second child because it can help you plan and track your spending. If possible, start tracking expenses before the baby arrives. You can anticipate how these may change once you welcome home baby number two, especially since you’ve already seen how your expenses increased with your first child. Then, compare that estimate to what you’re actually spending after the baby is born to see what may be costing you more (or less) than you thought each month. You can then start reworking your budget to reflect your new reality and help you afford a second child.

5. Prioritize financial goals in your new budget

Most tips to prepare financially for a second child focus on spending, but don’t neglect creating line items for saving in your budget.

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“An emergency fund is essential for a family,” Palmer says. “You want to make sure you can cover your bills even in the event of a job loss or unexpected expense.”

Paying off debt and saving for retirement should also be on your radar. You might even be thinking about starting to save for your children’s college.

Try your best to keep your own future in mind alongside your children’s. While it feels natural to put your children’s needs first, remember that your needs are also your family’s—and taking care of your future means taking care of theirs, too.

“Putting money aside when you’re expecting can help offset the sticker shock that comes with a new member of the family.”

– Kimberly Palmer, personal finance expert at NerdWallet

The key to affording a second child

Remember, the earlier you begin planning, the easier affording a second child can be.

“Putting money aside when you’re expecting can help offset the sticker shock that comes with a new member of the family,” Palmer says. Plus, the more you plan ahead, the more time you’ll have to create priceless memories with your growing family.

The post Affording a Second Child: How to Make Your Budget Work appeared first on Discover Bank – Banking Topics Blog.

Source: discover.com

How to Choose a 401(k) Beneficiary: Rules & Options

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Choosing a 401(k) beneficiary ensures that any unused funds in your account are dispersed according to your wishes after you pass away. Whether you’re married, single, or in a domestic partnership, naming a beneficiary simplifies the estate process and makes it easier for your heirs to receive the money.

There’s room on 401(k) beneficiary forms for both a primary and contingent beneficiary. Before making any decisions on a beneficiary and a backup, it can help to familiarize yourself with 401(k) beneficiary rules and options.

Why It’s Important to Name 401(k) Beneficiaries

If you die without a beneficiary listed on your 401(k) account, the distribution of the account may have to go through the probate process. While some plans with unnamed beneficiaries automatically default to a surviving spouse, others do not. If that’s the case—or if there is no surviving spouse—the 401(k) account becomes part of the estate that goes through probate as part of the will review.

401(k) may house a substantial amount of your retirement savings. How you approach choosing a 401(k) beneficiary depends on your personal situation. For married individuals, it’s common to choose a spouse. Some people choose to name a domestic partner or your children as beneficiaries.

Another option is to choose multiple beneficiaries, like multiple children or siblings. In this scenario, you can either elect for all beneficiaries to receive equal portions of your remaining 401(k) account, or assign each individual different percentages.

For example, you could allocate 25% to each of four children, or you could choose to leave 50% to one child, 25% to another, and 12.5% to the other two.

In addition to choosing a primary beneficiary, you must also choose a contingent beneficiary. This individual only receives your 401(k) funds if the primary beneficiary passes away. If the primary beneficiary is still alive, the contingent beneficiary doesn’t receive any funds.

401(k) Beneficiary Rules and Restrictions

Really, an individual can choose anyone they want to be a 401(k) beneficiary, with a few limitations. There are only a few restrictions and requirements on who may be named a beneficiary.

•  Minor children cannot be direct beneficiaries. They must have a named guardian oversee the inherited funds on their behalf, which will be chosen by a court if not specifically named. Choosing a reliable guardian helps to ensure the children’s inheritance is managed well until they reach adulthood.

•  A waiver may be required if someone other than a spouse is designated. Accounts that are ruled by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) have 401(k) spouse beneficiary rules. A spousal waiver is required if you designate less than 50% of your account to your spouse. Your plan administrator can tell you whether or not this rule applies to your specific 401(k).

How to Name Multiple 401(k) Beneficiaries

You are allowed to have multiple 401(k) beneficiaries, both for a single account and across multiple accounts. You must name them for each account, which gives you flexibility in how you want to pass on those funds.

When naming multiple beneficiaries, it’s common practice to divide the account by percentage, since the dollar amounts may vary based on what you use during your lifetime and investment performance.

However, also consider how the funds will be taxed for each individual . Spouse and non-spouse beneficiaries have different rules for an inherited 401(k). Spouses usually have more options available, but they differ depending on the spouse’s age and your age at the time of passing. In many cases, the spouse may roll over the funds into a specific spousal or inherited IRA.

Non-spouse beneficiaries may face higher tax consequences, but may be able to extend or stretch any required distributions over their life span to reduce their taxable income. They can also take out the money as a lump sum, which will be subject to income tax, but not the 10% early withdrawal penalty.

What to Do After Naming Beneficiaries

Once you’ve selected one or more beneficiaries, take the following steps to notify your heirs and to continually review and update your decisions as you move through various life stages.

Inform Your Beneficiaries

Naming your beneficiaries on your 401(k) plan makes sure your wishes are legally upheld, but you’ll make the inheritance process easier by telling your beneficiaries about your accounts. They’ll need to know where and how to access the account funds, especially since 401(k) accounts can be distributed outside of probate, making the process much faster than other elements of your estate plan.

For all of your accounts, including a 401(k), it’s a good idea to keep a list of financial institutions and account numbers. This makes it easier for your beneficiaries to access the funds quickly after your death. Plus, there may be rules on the pace at which the funds must be dispersed after your death—in some cases, your beneficiary may need to spread out withdrawals of the entire account over the 10 years following your death.

Revise After Major Life Changes

Managing your 401(k) beneficiaries isn’t necessarily a one-time task. It’s important to regularly review and update your decisions, especially as major life events occur. The most common events include marriage, divorce, birth, and death.

Common Life Stages

Before you get married, you may decide to list a parent or sibling as your beneficiary. But you’ll likely want to update that to your spouse or domestic partner, should you have one. At a certain point, you may also wish to add your children, especially once they reach adulthood and can be named as direct beneficiaries.

Divorce

It’s particularly important to update your named beneficiaries if you go through a divorce. If you don’t revise your 401(k) account, your ex-spouse could end up receiving those benefits—even if your will has been changed.

Death of a Beneficiary

Should your primary beneficiary die before you do, your contingent beneficiary will receive your 401(k) funds if you pass away. Any time a major death happens in your family, take the time to see how that impacts your own estate planning wishes. If your spouse passes away, for instance, you may wish to name your children as beneficiaries.

Second Marriages and Blended Families

Also note that the spouse rules apply for second marriages as well, whether following divorce or death of your first spouse. Your 401(k) automatically goes to your spouse if no other beneficiary is named. And if you assign them less than 50%, you’ll need that spousal waiver. Financial planning for blended families takes thought and communication, especially if you remarry later in life and want some or all of your assets to go to your children.

Manage Your Account Well

borrow from your 401(k), this can cause issues if you pass away with an outstanding balance. The loan principal will likely be deducted from your estate, which can limit how much your heirs actually receive.

Also try to streamline multiple 401(k) accounts as you change jobs and open new employer-sponsored plans. There are several ways to rollover your 401(k), which makes it easier for you to track and update your beneficiaries. It also simplifies things for your heirs after you pass away, because they don’t have to track down multiple accounts.

How to Update 401(k) Beneficiaries

Check with your 401(k) plan administrator to find out how to update your beneficiary information. Usually you’ll need to just fill out a form or log into your online retirement account.

Typically, you need the following information for each beneficiary:

•  Type of beneficiary
•  Full name
•  Birth date
•  Potentially their Social Security number

Although your named beneficiaries on the account supersede anything written in your will, it’s still smart to update that document as well. This can help circumvent legal challenges for your heirs after you pass away.

The Takeaway

A financial plan at any age should include how to distribute your assets should you pass away. The best way to manage your 401(k) is to formally name one or more beneficiaries on the account. This helps speed up the process by avoiding probate.

A named beneficiary trumps anything stated in your will. That’s why it’s so important to regularly review these designations to make sure the right people are identified to inherit your 401(k) assets.

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Is Now a Good Time to Buy a House?

So you’re at the point in your life where buying a home is not a question of if, but when. You’re scrimping. You’re saving. You’re dreaming of walking through the front door of your very own home.

But as the decision draws near, you start questioning everything. Is now a good time to buy a house? Or is this the worst time? Is it more financially responsible to buy a house right now or wait? And what if you mistime the market, buying too soon or too late, and miss out on lower home prices?

Ultimately, the experts say the answer is less about economies, markets and pandemics and more about you.

So, how do you think through this decision? You’ll want to take time to thoroughly review your personal financial situation and life goals. At the same time, you’ll need to gain some understanding of the market dynamics that impact home costs.

External factors can make buying a house right now intimidating, but your personal finances are an important factor.

This process will take some time, but it’s well worth the effort. With a firm grasp on your personal situation and some context on the housing market, you’ll be able to confidently go forth knowing you’re making a fiscally informed decision about whether to buy a house right now.

Honestly assess these aspects of your finances

Financial security is always important if you’re trying to determine when you’re ready to buy a home. To decide if now is a good time to buy a house, ask yourself the following questions about your finances:

How secure is your income?

Job or income stability is an important factor if you are buying a home in a rocky economy, such as the one triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, says real estate economist Gay Cororaton. Even in a robust economy, your income security should be top of mind when you’re thinking of buying a house right now.

If you have any inkling that your position may be eliminated or that you’ll be making a career change, you may want to delay buying a home. Even a recent break in employment that caused you to draw down some of your savings may raise a red flag with lenders, says Kate Ziegler, a real estate agent with Arborview Realty in the Boston area.

If you’re considering buying a house right now, you should avoid opening any new lines of credit right before purchasing a home.

– Jeff Tucker, senior economist at Zillow

Do you have enough money saved?

After income stability, savings is the next-most-important financial factor you’ll want to consider to determine if now is a good time to buy a house, Ziegler says. The old rule of thumb was to save 20% of the price of the home for your down payment. While that is ideal, it’s not necessary—far from it, Ziegler says. In fact, it has become more common for first-time buyers to put down much less than 20%.

How much house can you afford?

The down payment is one side of the affordability coin. Your monthly mortgage payment is the other side. You need to know how much you can spend on both to determine if you can afford to buy a house right now, says Jeff Tucker, a senior economist at Zillow. Aim for a monthly mortgage payment that doesn’t stretch you too thin—experts typically put this at around 28% of your monthly gross income, according to Bankrate.

With those guidelines, you can determine what you can afford. For example, if you make $4,000 a month, you should typically spend no more than $1,120 on your monthly mortgage payment in total.

How much house that buys you depends on multiple factors: mortgage rates, property tax rates, homeowners insurance and—if you don’t have the savings to put down 20%—primary mortgage insurance, or PMI. To get a rough estimate, plug your income details into an online calculator. For a more specific figure, talk to a local lender and get pre-approved for a mortgage, Ziegler says.

If you're buying a house right now, aim for mortgage payments around 28% of your monthly gross income.

Once you know your price range, you can determine how much savings you need in the bank to buy a house right now. You’ll also need to have money saved for closing costs, which vary but typically run 2% to 5% of the loan amount, according to Bankrate.

Again, Ziegler recommends talking to a lender to really understand what your individual down payment and closing costs would be. Finally, be sure to add a line item in your budget for home maintenance that will inevitably pop up after you move in. Whether it’s a dishwasher on the fritz or a leaky roof, you don’t want to be caught off guard, so be sure to save money for emergency home repairs.

How is your credit?

Your credit profile is also important to lenders, and it will likely be a factor in what interest rate you’re offered. Given that, you should be checking your credit report and know your credit score before investing in a home. If you’re considering buying a house right now, you should avoid opening any new lines of credit right before purchasing a home, Tucker says.

What is your debt-to-income ratio?

Another factor lenders check is your debt-to-income ratio, or DTI, Tucker says. This is the percentage of your gross monthly income that goes to paying monthly debt payments, plus your new mortgage. Lenders typically require this ratio to be 45% or less but prefer it even lower—in the 33% to 36% range.

Have you considered the opportunity cost?

Another financial consideration when deciding if now is a good time to buy a house is the opportunity cost of delaying a home purchase, Ziegler says. If you’re renting in a market where the rent is higher than your would-be monthly mortgage payment, you may be spending a lot more money each month than if you were to purchase a home. And of course, with a mortgage, your monthly payment increases your equity.

After taking a clear-eyed look at your income, savings and these other financial factors, you will have a better sense of when you’re ready to buy a home and whether now’s the time for you to dip into the market.

Consider key market factors

Next, take a look at factors that are outside of your control, but still influence your purchase: prices, interest rates and national employment trends.

Where are housing prices?

As you’re looking at the market, one of the biggest considerations when you are ready to buy a home will be housing prices and availability. Research your local market by talking to real estate agents who work specifically in the area where you want to buy and asking them about market trends, Ziegler says.

Track current listings and recently sold prices to get a sense of how prices look today. Generally, the tighter the inventory—meaning the fewer houses available—the higher prices will be, Tucker says.

If you're trying to determine when you are ready to buy a home, track current listings to get a sense of how prices look today.

What’s going on with interest rates?

When you’re ready to buy a home could also depend on another major economic factor: interest rates. When interest rates are low, your housing budget is effectively supercharged, Tucker says, and you can afford a more expensive house because you’re spending less on interest. When they are high, the opposite is true.

This is what compels people to buy when interest rates are low—you get more for your money. If you get a 30- or 15-year fixed-rate mortgage, you lock in that rate for the entire life of the loan, which could save you money now and into the future, Tucker says.

How does employment look nationally?

Finally, if you want to get a general idea of where the housing market may be headed—if prices will drop or rise soon—check out the national employment trends, Cororaton says. Low unemployment means prices will generally trend upward because more people can afford houses, boosting competition and prices, she says.

But if unemployment is inching up, then people are losing jobs and will be more likely to remain in their current homes. As a result, there tends to be less competition for them, lowering prices.

You don’t need to be an expert in the market to determine if now is a good time to buy a house, but a baseline understanding of these big-picture forces can give you the confidence you need to embark on your home-buying journey.

So when are you ready to buy a home? Paying attention to big-picture economic forces can help you decide.

Think about your future plans

After reviewing your savings and income and assessing the market conditions, take a step back and think about your life plans over the next few years. Your lifestyle and goals will help determine whether now is a good time to buy a house.

“For buyers who are not certain whether they will still be living in the same place in three or five years, I would caution against locking themselves into a certain location,” Ziegler says. “If they’re just not sure what the future holds, it may be better to have that flexibility.”

It’s unlikely in many markets that you will see substantial financial gain from homeownership if you move within five years, Ziegler says. Your equity gains will likely be offset by the transaction costs of buying and selling your home.

That goes for remote workers, too. Are you working from a home office these days? While widespread remote work may allow buyers to consider homes farther from their offices, ask yourself: Is my company going to permanently allow employees to work from home? Do I think there will be other remote opportunities in the future?

Is now a good time to buy a house? That depends on your lifestyle and long-term goals.

While you’re thinking about the next three to five years of your career, also consider the next three to five years of your personal life. Will you have a family? Will that family grow?

These can be weighty topics, so be sure to think them through on your own schedule. Buying a house is a big decision, and it’s not one to be rushed. By taking the time to assess your life, from your job security to your financial health to your lifestyle, and considering the impact of market factors, you’ll have a clearer sense of when you are ready to buy a home.

If you’ve decided that buying a house right now is the best decision for you, it’s time to learn more about how it will impact your budget. Get started by reading up on these eight unexpected expenses when buying a home.

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Source: discover.com