1099-C: What You Need to Know about the Cancellation of Debt Tax Form

From early January to mid-February, you might receive a number of tax documents in the mail. They can range from expected W-2s from your employer to forms about mortgage interest you paid. One form that many people don’t expect is the 1099-C. Discover why you would receive such a form and what the IRS expects… Read More

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Escaping from a Payday Loan Organization: Tips for Getting Out of the Payday Trap

According to a 2016 Pew Research study, most borrowers who incur payday loan debt end up paying a lot in fees. In fact, most pay more in fees than they borrowed. Pew Research also notes that more than half of payday loan borrowers already struggle to meet monthly obligations. When you have an emergency you… Read More

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Should You Pay Down PMI or High-Interest Debt First?

Money Girl listener Danielle M. says:

I’ve been listening to your podcast for about five years now since I graduated from college. I greatly appreciate the tips and guidance you give to the community as a whole. Thank you for giving me the confidence and knowledge to build a solid financial foundation.

I recently purchased a home, which includes a PMI payment. I also have student loans and a small car loan. We have extra money every month to put toward our loans. I understand it’s best to pay down debt in order of the highest interest rate first. I’m wondering how to evaluate my mortgage since the interest rate doesn’t include PMI payments. Should I pay down my mortgage until the PMI is gone, or is it better to focus on my higher-rate student loans first?

Thanks for your great question, Danielle! Understanding where to put your extra money each month is incredibly important. In this post, I’ll explain what PMI is, the rules for eliminating it, and how to know when it should be your top financial priority.

What is Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI)?

If you take out a mortgage to buy a home or refinance an existing home loan, the last thing you want to hear is that you have to pay an additional charge, called private mortgage insurance or PMI. You might feel even worse when you find out that this insurance protects the lender, not you!

Borrowers have to shell out for PMI when they get a conventional mortgage but can’t put at least 20% down. The amount you borrow to buy a home is called the loan-to-value (LTV) ratio. For example, if you borrow $180,000 to buy a home valued at $200,000, you have a 90% LTV ($180,000 / $200,000 = 0.90)

Borrowers have to shell out for PMI when they get a conventional mortgage but can’t put at least 20% down.

When your LTV on a home mortgage is higher than 80%, lenders consider you to be a bigger risk than if you borrowed less. The lender mitigates that risk by requiring you to purchase PMI. The policy would cover a portion of their loss if you didn’t pay your mortgage and foreclosure proceeds don’t cover your outstanding loan balance.

However, there's a bright side to paying PMI. It makes it possible for many borrowers who can’t afford to put 20% down to buy a home. And it can be eliminated at certain LTV thresholds, which we’ll cover.  

What’s the cost of PMI?

The cost of PMI varies depending on many factors. These include the type of mortgage you get, how much you put down, where the property is located, your credit, your loan term, and how lenders structure your PMI fee. In general, there are three ways lenders charge PMI:

  1. Monthly payments – which get added to your monthly mortgage payments. The premium could range from 0.2% to 1.5% of the balance on your loan each year. The annual cost is typically divided into 12 premiums and added to your monthly payments.
     
  2. Lump-sum payment – is a one-time premium that you pay upfront at closing. You may also pay both upfront and monthly premiums.
     
  3. Higher interest rate – a lender may charge a higher interest rate instead of itemizing separate PMI charges.

Monthly payments are the most common way that borrowers pay for PMI. Let’s say you get a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage for $180,000 to buy a home valued at $200,000. With a 90% LTV and good credit, your PMI could cost about $100 per month.

Paying monthly PMI gives you the most transparency about the charge. It gets itemized on your mortgage statement, so you know exactly how much you're paying. And more importantly, you can see when it finally gets eliminated, which we'll cover next.

If your lender offers more than one way to pay PMI, ask for a detailed pricing comparison so you can weigh the pros and cons.

If you make a lump-sum PMI payment, it could turn out to cost more or less than the other options, depending on whether you choose to pay off your mortgage ahead of schedule. If you sell your home after just a few years or pay off your mortgage early, you don't get a return of any PMI premium.

Since mortgage interest is tax-deductible, the option to pay a higher interest rate instead of separate PMI payments could cost less on an after-tax basis. Also, PMI is currently a tax-deductible expense, although there have been periods when it wasn’t. At the end of the year, lenders send out Form 1098, which lists how much PMI and mortgage interest you paid during the year so that you can claim it on your tax return.

However, you can only claim these deductions if you itemize them using Schedule A. When your total itemized deductions are less than the standard deduction for your tax filing status, you'll save money claiming the standard deduction instead.

As you can see, knowing which option is best for paying PMI can be a bit complicated. If your lender offers more than one way to pay it, ask for a detailed pricing comparison so you can weigh the pros and cons and consider which option may cost less.

Rules for eliminating Private Mortgage Insurance

Now that you understand why and how lenders charge PMI, let’s review the rules for getting rid of it. That will help you know how high a priority it should be.

You should receive an annual notice from your mortgage lender that reminds you about your options to have PMI eliminated under certain conditions. Here are the ways you can get rid of monthly PMI payments.

When your mortgage balance reaches 78% of the original value of the property, PMI must automatically be canceled.

Request cancelation. After you pay down your mortgage balance to 80% of the original value of your home, you can ask for PMI to be canceled. Your original value can be either the price you paid for your home or its appraised value when you bought it (or refinanced it), whichever is less.

Your lender will require you to pay for a property appraisal to verify that your home’s value is the same or higher than when you purchased it. The appraisal fee could range from $300 to $1,000, depending on the size and location of your home.

Automatic termination. When your mortgage balance reaches 78% of the original value of the property, PMI must automatically be canceled. In this case, you don’t have to request it or pay for an appraisal.

Midpoint termination. When your mortgage balance reaches its midpoint, PMI must be automatically canceled. For example, if you have a 30-year mortgage, your lender must cancel your PMI after 15 years.

But keep an eye out for situations that might allow you to cancel PMI early, like when your home value appreciates due to market conditions. When your home value goes up, it lowers your LTV. Likewise, if you make additional mortgage payments that reduce your principal loan balance, it lowers your LTV. The faster you get to the 78% threshold, the sooner you can request a PMI cancellation.

Keep an eye out for situations that might allow you to cancel PMI early, like when your home value appreciates due to market conditions.

However, be aware that your lender can deny your request for PMI cancelation in certain situations, such as if you’ve made late payments. You must get current on any outstanding payments to have PMI canceled either as a request or automatically. Also, don’t forget that taking out a home equity loan or line of credit increases your LTV.

When should eliminating PMI be a financial priority?

Now that you understand when you must pay PMI and when you can eliminate it, let’s turn to Danielle’s question. She's considering whether to send extra money to her mortgage and get closer to canceling PMI or if it's better to pay off her student loan or car loan faster.

First, I’d recommend that Danielle zoom out and look at any other top financial priorities. She didn’t mention if she’s regularly contributing to a retirement account or has emergency savings. If she doesn’t have a healthy emergency fund, or she isn’t investing a minimum of 10% to 15% of her gross income for retirement, that’s where her extra money should go first.

We know that Danielle doesn’t have any dangerous debts, such as accounts in collections, credit cards with sky-high interest rates, or expensive payday loans. If she did, those would need attention before addressing any other type of debt. As she mentioned in her question, it’s generally best to pay off debt in order of highest to lowest interest rate.

So, assuming that Danielle’s finances are in good shape, how does paying PMI compare with a student loan and a small auto loan balance? While ongoing PMI payments aren’t an interest expense, you can pretend that they are as a technique for understanding their place in your financial life.

Let’s say you borrowed $180,000 for a $200,000 home, giving you a 90% LTV. As I previously mentioned, you need a 78% LTV to request PMI cancellation. So, you’d have to pay down your mortgage to $156,000 to get there. If you’re at the beginning of a loan term, you’d need to shell out $24,000 ($180,000 – $156,000 = $24,000).

If you were paying $100 a month or $1,200 a year for PMI, you could calculate it as a proxy for annual interest on a $24,000 loan. That comes out to an effective interest rate of 5% ($1,200 / $24,000 = 0.05). That’s an amount you’re paying on top of your mortgage interest rate. So, if your mortgage costs 4% in this example, you’d really be paying more like 9% during the years that you pay PMI.

The benefits of accelerating mortgage payments to get rid of PMI decrease if you’re able to deduct mortgage interest and PMI on your taxes.

However, this is an imperfect calculation because it’s doesn’t account for many factors. These include how much extra you pay toward your principal mortgage balance, how quickly equity builds as you prepay it, and any home appreciation.

Also, the benefits of accelerating mortgage payments to get rid of PMI decrease if you’re able to deduct mortgage interest and PMI on your taxes. A fixed-rate mortgage that costs 4% may only cost you 3% on an after-tax basis, depending on your effective income tax rate.

In general, prepaying a mortgage to eliminate PMI ahead of schedule may not help you as much as paying down other types of debt. Depending on where you live, factors such as real estate appreciation and general inflation are likely to work in your favor, making you eligible for PMI cancellation sooner than you may think.

A super simple way to evaluate the interest rate you’re paying for a mortgage with PMI is to tack on a percentage point or two. For instance, if your pre-tax mortgage rate is 4%, consider it actually costing you 5% to 6% tops. Or if you deduct interest and PMI, don’t factor in the tax implications and just consider the mortgage costing you the same as its stated interest rate, or 4% in my example.

If your other debts cost more than these very rough mortgage interest calculations, I’d be aggressive about getting rid of them first. Again, go in order of highest interest rate to lowest.

However, if you have a small outstanding balance that you just want to wipe out, there’s nothing wrong with that. Even if it costs you slightly less in interest, sometimes it just feels good to get rid of a small debt that’s been weighing you down.

What’s most important is that you understand how much you owe, the interest rates you’re paying, and that you have a plan for eliminating debt. Even if you don’t have extra money to pay off debt ahead of schedule, tacking them in the right order helps you save the most interest so you can eliminate debt as quickly as possible.

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A Beginner's Guide to Investing in Stocks

To new investors, the stock market can seem mysterious and intimidating. Many people hear that buying stocks is risky, but they like the potentially high investment returns. Fortunately, there are some ways to make money investing in stocks that significantly limit your risk.

Just about every investor should own some amount of stocks, even during times of market volatility.

Just about every investor should own some amount of stocks, even during times of market volatility. I'll explain how to invest in stocks when you have little experience or money. You’ll learn the pros and cons of stocks and the best ways to own them to build wealth safely.

What are stocks?

Stocks are intangible assets that give you ownership in a company. That’s why they’re also known as equities or equity investments. Owning stock entitles you to part of a company’s earnings and assets.

Let's say a company needs to fund groundbreaking research, open a division in a foreign country, or hire a crew of talented engineers. Companies issue stock to raise money from investors for these types of ventures—it’s that simple.

Publicly traded stocks are bought and sold on exchanges such as the NASDAQ or the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). However, you can trade them only through a broker or investment firm.

When a stock increases in value, it’s called "capital appreciation." That’s a fancy way of saying that the price goes up. As I'm writing this episode, Facebook and Apple stock are selling on the NASDAQ exchange for $266.12 and $469.51 per share. Visa and Walt Disney stock are selling on the New York Stock Exchange for $202.41 and $127.92.

If you buy Visa at $202.41 per share and the price goes up to $210, you can sell it for a gain of $7.59 ($210 – $202.41). You can easily find current stock price quotes on sites like Google Finance and Yahoo Finance.

In addition to capital appreciation, some stocks also pay a portion of company profits. If so, it’s called a dividend stock and distributes dividend payments to stockholders. For instance, right now, Discover pays a dividend of $0.44 a share. If you own 1,000 shares of Discover, you'd be paid $440 in dividends over a year.

Dividend stocks pay you even when the share price goes down, so owning them is smart to hedge against potential market losses. You can find a list of dividend stocks on a site like Morningstar.

The pros and cons of investing in stocks

There are many advantages to investing in stocks. One is that you don't need much money to buy them compared to other assets such as real estate. Buying just one stock share makes you an instant business owner without investing your life savings or taking on significant risk.

Buying just one stock share makes you an instant business owner without investing your life savings or taking on significant risk.

Another advantage of making stock investments is that they offer the most significant potential for growth. Although there's no guarantee that every stock will increase in value, since 1926, the average large stock has returned close to 10% a year.

If you're investing for a long-term goal, such as retirement or a child's education, stocks turbocharge your portfolio with enough growth to achieve it. Over the long term, no other type of common investment performs better than stocks.

The main disadvantage of investing in stocks is that prices can be volatile and spike up or plummet quickly as trading volume fluctuates from minute to minute. News, earnings forecasts, and quarterly financial statements are just a few triggers that cause investors to buy or sell shares, and that activity influences a stock's price throughout the day.

Price volatility is why stocks are one of the riskiest investments to own in the short term.

Price volatility is why stocks are one of the riskiest investments to own in the short term. Investing at the wrong time could wipe out your portfolio or cause you to lose money if you need to sell shares on a day when the price is below what you originally paid.

But as I mentioned, you can minimize this risk (but never eliminate it) by adopting a long-term investing strategy.

What is diversification in stock investing?

In addition to taking a long-term approach, another key strategy for making money investing in stocks is diversification. Having a diversified stock portfolio means you own many stocks.  

People are often surprised to learn that it's better to own more investments than less. Diversification allows you to earn higher average returns while reducing risk because it's not likely that all your investments could drop in value at the same time.

Diversification allows you to earn higher average returns while reducing risk because it's not likely that all your investments could drop in value at the same time.

For instance, if you put your life’s savings into one technology stock that tanks, you’re in trouble. But if that stock only makes up a fraction of your portfolio, the loss is negligible. Having a mix of investments that responds to market conditions in different ways is the key to smoothing out risk.

Diversification isn’t a guarantee that you’ll make a killing with your investments, but the idea is that as some investments go up in value, others may decline and vice versa. It prevents you from “putting all your eggs in one basket,” financially speaking. 

RELATED: How to Invest in the Perfect Portfolio

How to create a diversified stock portfolio

If you think creating a diversified stock portfolio sounds difficult or time-consuming, I want to put you at ease. Buying one or more stock funds is a simple and inexpensive way to achieve instant diversification. 

Funds bundle investments of stocks, bonds, assets, and other securities into packages convenient for investors to buy. They’re made up of many underlying investments. Some funds may focus on one asset class only, such as international stocks, others may have a mix of asset types, such as stock and bonds.

Depending on the investment firm you use, you may see the following types of funds:

  • Mutual funds are collections of assets that are managed by a fund professional. They give you a simple way to own a portfolio of many stocks. Shares can be bought or sold only at the end of the trading day when the fund’s net asset value gets calculated.
     
  • Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are similar to mutual funds because they’re baskets of assets. However, they trade like an individual stock on an exchange and experience price changes throughout the day.
     
  • Index funds are a mutual fund that aims to match or outperform a particular index, such as the S&P 500. They typically come with low fees and may be comprised of thousands of underlying investments.
     
  • Target date funds are a type of mutual fund that automatically resets the mix of stocks, bonds, and cash in its portfolio according to a selected time frame, such as your estimated retirement date.

How much stock should you own?

Stocks or stock funds should be an essential part of every investor's long-term portfolio. If you're young and have a long way to go before retirement, consider owning a large percentage of stocks. Though prices will go up and down in the short term, you're likely to see prices trend up and give you an impressive return over time.

But if you're nearing or already in retirement, take a more conservative approach to preserve your wealth. That doesn't mean eliminating stocks from your portfolio entirely but instead, owning a lower percentage.

There's a rough rule of thumb that says you should subtract your age from 100 or 110 to find the percentage of stocks to own.

There's a rough rule of thumb that says you should subtract your age from 100 or 110 to find the percentage of stocks to own. For instance, a 40-year-old should consider holding 60% to 70% of their investment portfolio in stocks. The remainder would be in other asset types such as bonds, real estate, and cash.

These investment allocation targets are not hard rules because everyone is different. To design your ideal allocation strategy, you can use an online resource, such as Bankrate's Asset Allocation Calculator.

What's important to remember about making money with stocks is that the amount you own should change over time. When you have decades to go before retirement, take advantage of as much growth as possible by investing mostly in stocks. As you get closer to retirement, devote more of your portfolio to bonds and cash, which preserve the wealth you worked hard to accumulate.

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Can I Inherit Debt?

When someone passes away leaving debts behind, you might be wondering if you have any personal liability to pay them. If you have aging parents, for instance, you may be worried about having to assume responsibility for their mortgage payments, … Continue reading →

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Freezing Your Credit

In the age of paperless transactions, identify theft is something that virtually all of us are susceptible to. If your identity is stolen, the consequences can be severe, and in some cases, can take years to recover from. One way to be proactive against fraud and defend yourself from identity theft, is to freeze your […]

Freezing Your Credit is a post from Pocket Your Dollars.

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Freezing Your Credit

In the age of paperless transactions, identify theft is something that virtually all of us are susceptible to. If your identity is stolen, the consequences can be severe, and in some cases, can take years to recover from. One way to be proactive against fraud and defend yourself from identity theft, is to freeze your […]

Freezing Your Credit is a post from Pocket Your Dollars.

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Credit Card Balance Transfers

Credit card balances are crippling households across the United States, giving them insurmountable debts that just keep on growing and never seem to go away. But there is some good news, as this problem has spawned a multitude of debt relief options, one of which is a credit card balance transfer. Balance transfers are a […]

Credit Card Balance Transfers is a post from Pocket Your Dollars.

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