It used to be that our personal finances were so uncomplicated — a simple bank account, 30-year mortgage, company pension.
That was then.
This is now: Our personal finances come with frustration, complication and financial products that seem incomprehensible. Just trying to understand — and remember — the new consumer protections for credit cards is enough to give yourself a headache.
There is so much information to grasp and so many scam artists to avoid that you need CliffsNotes for your money, much like the guides that have helped students interpret complex literary works.
Well, as it turns out, there is the equivalent for personal finance.
For the Color of Money Book Club selection for October, I’m recommending a monthly newsletter — Consumer Reports Money Adviser — which is as informative as it is visually appealing. The newsletter is published by Consumers Union, a nonprofit group that also publishes the wonderful Consumer Reports magazine.
The newsletter, which can’t be purchased at the newsstand, costs $29 for a 12-month subscription. To subscribe online, go to consumerreports.org/moneyadviser. You can also order by telephone at (800) 234-1970.
The typically 17-page newsletter covers a wide range of personal finance topics in short engaging articles — from credit to investing to saving to insurance to real estate to retirement planning to taxes. In every issue you’ll find regular money tips. You’ll find “savings and loans,” a feature highlighting the best rates for putting money aside or borrowing. Two of my favorite features are “Behind the Hype” and “Gimmicks and Gotchas.” Both expose the misleading ways companies try to get you to buy something.
“Wading through the fine print, hidden terms, and other gotchas on mortgages, credit cards, bank accounts, and student loans can be daunting for even the savviest consumer,” wrote Noreen Perrotta in her editor’s notes for the September issue.
Amen to that.
• was particularly interested in a feature story in the current issue that evaluates which strategy is best for paying off credit card debt. The options, as analyzed by CRMA:
• Pay off the card with the highest interest rate first.
Mathematically, this option will result in the lowest amount of interest paid.
• Pay off the card with the lowest balance first. You put the bulk of the money allocated for paying down debt toward the card with the smallest balance while making the minimum payment on other cards with larger balances. When the smallest balance is paid in full, you then put all your payback funds toward the card with the next lowest balance. This is the method I recommend. In my experience of advising people how to pay off their debt, there’s a psychological boost when people can quickly knock debts off their list.
• Pay off the highest balance first. CRMA says borrowers with large balances — especially those that comprise more than 50 percent of the total line of credit — have become especially vulnerable to having their credit limits reduced. By concentrating on credit cards that are maxed out or close to being maxed out, consumers work toward getting their balances below 30 percent of their credit lines, which helps boost their credit scores.
It’s important for consumers to find the most effective debt repayment method, the newsletter points out, given that Americans currently owe $917 billion on revolving credit lines and almost all of it is a result of charging purchases to credit cards. It’s also useful for the many credit card holders who are receiving notices of hikes in their interest rates.
So which debt repayment method is best?
“As long as you stick to it, any of the approaches we’ve highlighted here have merit,” CRMA found. “You can even change tactics midstream — for instance, pay down a high-balance credit card first, then, when that balance is below 30 percent, switch to paying the card with the highest APR. The greatest challenge will be resisting the temptation to backslide toward making only minimum payments.”
I know this is an unusual selection for a book club, but I’ve been reading the newsletter for some time and just thought it was so well written and easy to understand that it’s a must-have to help you navigate the world of personal finance.
It’s easy to be a member of the book club. We don’t meet — at least not in person. We come together for a live online discussion. Join me Oct. 22 at 11 a.m. CDT at washingtonpost.com/discussions. Perrotta will join me to answer your personal finance questions.