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Best Buys: Strategies for your finances

By Jean Chatzky with Jonah Freedman, Cybele Weisser and Amy Wilson, Money Magazine

Americans are up to their you-know-whatsies in credit-card debt. We owe, on average, nearly $9,000 per household, the largest amount ever, and hold an average of 16 different cards.

Credit cards

Thanks to rock-bottom interest rates, however, eliminating that debt is easier than ever. "No one should be paying more than 10 percent to 11 percent interest," says credit guru Robert McKinley of CardWeb.com.

Ask, and you might recieve - It's always worth asking your current card company to reduce your interest rate. (The longer you've held a card, the higher your credit score, which can help you snag a lower rate.)

Best deals on new cards - McKinley suggests the following widely available cards: For balance transfers, the no-fee Discover Platinum Card, which offers a 0 percent interest rate through August 2004.

Otherwise, there's the Chase i-Card with an 8.49 percent rate. And if it's perks you're after, the no-fee American Express Blue Cash Card has a 9.24 percent APR and offers cash rebates of as much as 5 percent of purchases if you maintain a balance and 3 percent if you don't.

Car loans

Yes, you can refinance - If you're paying 5 percent or more on your car loan, consider refinancing. New-car loan rates are typically running about 3.5 percent for 36 months, 4 percent for 60 months; used-car rates are usually 0.2 to 0.3 percentage points higher.

The savings won't seem all that huge -- on a five-year, $20,000 auto loan, a 1.5 percent rate reduction translates into roughly $900 over the life of the loan -- but they'll be big enough to make it worth your while.

Why? Because refinancing a car loan costs next to nothing in money or time. The only expense, says Brian Reed, director of Capital One Auto Finance (formerly PeopleFirst), is an average $15 charge from your local Department of Motor Vehicles to transfer your lien.

If you purchased a car in recent months, you may still qualify for a new -- rather than used -- car rate.

Otherwise, shop for the best rate online (bankrate.com has current averages). Your local credit union may offer competitive numbers, too. (Credit unions write about 20 percent of all auto loans.)

For a new car, finding financing on your own -- either as a direct loan or in the form of a home-equity line of credit -- can also enable you to take the rebate that's often offered in lieu of low-rate dealer financing.

Student loans

Take advantage of low rates - Interest rates on federally insured student loans fell to historic lows on July 1. The rate on Stafford Loans made after 1998 dropped to 3.42 percent, and to 2.82 percent for students in school or in their grace period (the six-month window between the end of school and the first required payment). Rates on PLUS loans for parents fell to 4.22 percent.

Borrowers, even parents, can consolidate a portfolio of variable-rate student loans into one fixed-rate loan -- but they can do it only once.

Right now is a singular opportunity to lock in at around 3.5 percent. Those slim profit margins have lenders lobbying Congress to make all student loans, even consolidated ones, variable, with an 8.5 percent rate cap, starting next year.

Discounts are key - If you haven't consolidated, do it now. If all of your loans are with a single lender, you must go to that lender for consolidation. If they're not, you can shop around, but do it based on promised future discounts, since today's interest rates don't vary from lender to lender.

Most consolidators will give you a one-percentage-point break on your rate for a history of making timely payments. But some, like Sallie Mae, require 48 on-time payments, while others, like Consolidated Funding Service, will lower your rate after 36.

Also, look for discounts if you have the payments debited from your bank account. And if you're fortunate enough to be in your grace period, take advantage of it -- and the 0.6-percentage-point rate reduction it nets you -- by consolidating before it expires.

Mortgages

Talk to all the players - Unfortunately, there's no rule of thumb when it comes to getting the best deal on a mortgage.

Sometimes you'll do better online, sometimes through your bank, sometimes with a mortgage broker. (I know this firsthand: When I refinanced recently, a mortgage broker got me a better deal from a large lender than I could get myself. Why? His volume business netted him wholesale rates.)

Call your current lender first and ask if you qualify for a streamlined refi, which involves lower closing costs and less paperwork. The trade-off: You may pay one-quarter to one-half a point more in interest than if you'd started from scratch.

How long will you stay? - If you don't qualify for a streamlined refi, ask yourself this question: How long will I stay in my house? The answer is your guide to the right type of loan for you.

Less than three years

If you have more equity than debt, consider replacing your first mortgage with a home-equity line of credit (HELOC). In nearly every market in the country, it's possible to find a HELOC at 4 percent, the current prime rate.

Even if rates go up a full point each year, they'll still be around 5 percent to 6 percent by the time you pay off this loan. The best part? No closing costs that you won't be around to recoup.


Three to seven years

Look carefully at a hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) that's fixed for the first five or seven years, then adjusts every year thereafter -- hence the 5/1 and 7/1 labels.

On a $200,000 loan at 4.5 percent, your monthly payment on a 5/1 ARM would be $1,013. That's $184 a month less than a 30-year fixed-rate loan at 5.99 percent.

Your savings over the first five years: $11,040 -- in other words, serious coin.

More than seven years

A fixed-rate mortgage is probably the smartest way to go. If you like the idea of a 15-year loan but don't want to lock yourself into the higher payments, try making one extra mortgage payment a year and directing it toward your principal.

It can knock the term of a 30-year loan down to 23 years. Two extra annual payments a year will knock off another two years.

 


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