How Does Your Credit Score Compare to Your State’s?

Record unemployment rates, a wild swing in America’s GDP and homeownership rates increasing month over month. Despite these examples of economic volatility of 2020, another surprising number emerged — America has now reached an all-time average high credit score.

Experian’s latest Consumer Credit Review highlights new trends regarding credit. Not only does the credit score landscape change among generational groups and consumer’s location, but it’s clear Americans are focused on paying down specific types of debt, all leading to an overall score improvement.

69% of Americans had a credit score of 670 or higher

This credit score average stands out because only in the year prior was the percentage at 66% and then jumped up three percentage points in one year. The average American credit score from 2020 sits at 710, which also significantly increased from the prior year.

In 2019, the average score for Americans was 703. This level of growth is unusually high compared to observations from the last 10 years, where FICO scores tend to only grow about one percentage point per year. 

[ Read: How to Raise Your Credit Score ]

The increase in credit scores now puts more Americans in FICO’s “good” credit score range. If a credit score lands between 670 to 739, it opens up more borrowing opportunities from lenders, and consumers in this range should qualify for most credit cards and loans. According to Rod Griffin, Senior Director of Consumer Education and Advocacy for Experian, there are promising signs for how consumers are managing their credit histories, despite challenging financial situations due to the pandemic.

“Credit scores have continued to improve, which is a trend we’ve seen over the last ten years or so, reaching an average score of 688.  Lower credit card balances, fewer missed payments and lower credit utilization, or balance-to-limit ratios, have supported this increase in average scores,” adds Griffin.

2019 2020 Change
Average U.S. FICO Credit Score 703 710 + 7 points (1%)
Average U.S. Credit Card Debt $6,194 $5,313 -$879 (14%)
Average U.S. Credit Utilization 28.8% 25.3% -3.5 (12%)

Source: Experian 2020 Consumer Credit Review

Average credit score in each state 

Not only did average credit scores increase overall, but there appear to be trends emerging within specific states. For example, the top states in the country that saw the highest increase in overall credit score were Arizona, Delaware, Idaho, North Carolina and Washington D.C. These states averaged about a 9 or 10 point increase in average score from 2019. 

[ Read: What Is a Good Credit Score Range? ]

On the other hand, North Dakota, South Dakota, Hawaii, Nebraska and Vermont recorded the lowest growth in average credit scores from 2019 to 2020. But what is noteworthy about these states is they already had higher-than-average credit scores to begin with, which means there was less room for an increase to occur. But overall, no matter the location, there is an upward trend in credit scores across America.

In this article

Average credit card debt down 14%   

Credit scores are not the only numbers showing interesting trends. Overall, the U.S. average consumer debt decreased by 14%, even amid an economic downturn. This has a trickle-down effect with credit utilization, which also experienced a decrease of 3.5%. This means not only are Americans paying more towards credit card balances, but the available credit for each individual is loosening up. 

As Americans pay down their credit card balances and decrease their credit utilization, the result is typically an increase in credit scores. Balances and utilization are two major factors used to calculate the FICO credit score.

It might seem odd that in the middle of high unemployment numbers and jobless claims that credit card debt would decrease. But with federal student loan payments and interest accrual on pause from the CARES act of 2020, it appears the debt payoff shifted to credit cards and not student loans.

When you look specifically at federal student loans only, borrowing either stayed the same or increased from 2019 to 2020, depending on the type of loan. Student loans, both federal and private, do show on consumer’s credit reports, but it’s the credit card balances showing the decrease in 2020, not student loans.  

Credit scores improved the most among Millenials  

Similar to how location influences the numbers of increased credit scores, age appears to be a factor as well. When examining the averages, it becomes clear how different the increases in credit scores are among the different generations.

  • Millennials (ages 24-39) increased their average FICO score by +11 points from 2019 to 2020.
  • Gen X (ages 40-55) increased their average FICO score by +10 points.
  • Gen Z (ages 18-23) increasing scores by +7 points.

Even though Baby Boomers (ages 56-74) and The Silent Generation (age 75+) had less of an increase, +5 and +1 respectively, these numbers indicate America as a whole is increasing credit scores overall, no matter the age. 

“Millennials have continued to improve their credit scores. In 2019 they had an average credit score of 647. This rose to 658 in 2020. While still below the average of 688, responsible borrowing habits, including fewer missed payments and lower card balances, are helping Millennials move their credit scores in a positive direction. This trend should encourage Millennials and all consumers to be proactive in protecting and maintaining their credit histories during this time,” explains Griffin.

We welcome your feedback on this article. Contact us at with comments or questions.

Image credit: GaudiLab


Rakuten Review – Earn Cash Back for Shopping at Your Favorite Stores

Rakuten (formerly Ebates) is a popular website that offers cash-back rewards and rebates on everyday purchases from more than 2,500 retail partners. Offers usually range from 1% to 10%, with an impressive crop of “10% cash-back stores” that include some of the biggest names in retail.

Rakuten also offers thousands of product-specific coupons with much larger instant discounts, including “buy one, get one free” (BOGO) offers. Major retailers including Amazon, Macy’s, eBay, and Target are all represented in Rakuten offerings.

It’s free to join Rakuten, though purchases must be made in order to earn cash-back, discounts, or coupons. To make money on a deal, simply click the applicable link on the Rakuten website and complete your purchase with the retailer. Cash back accrues to your Rakuten member account and is automatically sent to you via PayPal or check each quarter. With instant discounts and coupons, the purchase price is reduced before you buy, so your rewards balance doesn’t increase.

How does Rakuten offer these deals? Simple: It collects an affiliate bonus, which varies by retailer, on every purchase members make via the Rakuten site. Rakuten keeps a portion of the bonus for itself and passes the rest along to the member. The exact amount Rakuten keeps varies from deal to deal.

How It Works

Creating an account with Rakuten is easy. Simply enter your email address or Facebook login, click the verification link in the email that appears in your inbox, and create a password. Once you’ve created an account, you can start seeking and taking advantage of offers.

Website Cash Back

The Rakuten homepage displays an array of retailer-specific deals (called “panels”), and the cash-back amount offered by each. When you click on a panel, you’re shown a host of details, including the specific products you can get cash back on, the amount of time remaining for the deal (if applicable), quantity restrictions, and other caveats or limitations.

You can also use the onsite search feature to find specific products or retailers, or browse categories and subcategories displayed on the homepage.

While most cash-back offers apply to direct product or service purchases, others cover coupons purchased through social deal sites like Groupon and Living Social. These offers allow you to get cash back when you purchase the coupon in addition to the coupon’s advertised discount.

To earn cash back, you must sign in to your Rakuten account, click the outbound link in your chosen deal listing, and make a purchase without navigating away from the retailer’s website. If you navigate away and return later to complete your purchase, Rakuten doesn’t earn its affiliate payment and thus can’t offer cash back on the purchase.

Rakuten Button

All Rakuten members are eligible to download the free Rakuten Cash Back Button, a browser plugin (browser extension) that eliminates the need to sign in to your Rakuten account.

The Rakuten Cash Back Button automatically notifies you of cashback opportunities on Rakuten’s retail partner websites. The plugin offers a search box for finding products, and when cash back is available, a small Rakuten logo is visible next to the results. Depending on the retailer, cash back is either automatically activated as soon as you visit the retailer’s website or after you click an orange “Activate Cash Back” link.

In-Store Cash Back

Rakuten offers plenty of opportunities to earn cash back in-store too. To qualify, you need to navigate to the corresponding in-store cash-back panel on your Rakuten mobile app, follow any purchasing instructions, and present your device at checkout for verification. Some merchants offer buy-online, pick up in-store deals for added convenience.

Since in-store cash-back offers are often tied to clearances or seasonal sales, they may be more time-sensitive than online-only deals. Plan accordingly.

Tracking Cash Back

Your Rakuten account dashboard tracks all shopping sessions initiated through Rakuten or the Rakuten Button during the past three months. If you suspect a particular transaction failed to post cash back to your account, you can check your dashboard to see if the transaction was logged and, if so, contact Rakuten to find out what happened.

A transaction’s actual cash-back value can take as few as one or two days to appear in your account, or longer than 30 depending on the retailer and the time of your purchase.

Once earned, cash back never expires. If you return an item whose purchase earned cash back, Rakuten reduces your account balance by the cash-back amount.

Cash-Back Payouts

Rakuten issues quarterly payments for cash-back credit, either as a mailed check (dubbed a “Big Fat Check“) or PayPal deposit. You can also send your Big Fat Check to a recipient of your choice. Payouts come 45 days after the end of the quarter:

  • January 1 to March 31: May 15
  • April 1 to June 30: August 15
  • July 1 to September 30: November 15
  • October 1 to December 31: February 15

To be eligible for a payout on the upcoming payout date, you need to have at least $5 in your account on the last day of the quarter. Smaller balances roll over into the next quarter.

Instant Coupons

In addition to cash back on purchases, Rakuten offers instant discounts through exclusive coupons on individual products or product categories. There are more than 10,000 coupons active at any given time, though many apply to different products from the same retailer. Some coupons are paired with cash-back offers.

Each listing shows the retailer and product to which the coupon applies, the coupon code to enter at checkout (if applicable), the available discount, and any restrictions or limitations.

Key Features

The opportunity to earn cash back on everyday purchases is what brings most shoppers to Rakuten, but the site also has these value-added features:

Sign-Up Bonus and Referral Program

New Rakuten members are eligible for a sign-up bonus worth $20 payable as a gift card to Walmart or a cash bonus to your Rakuten account. To earn the bonus, you must spend at least $20 through Rakuten within 90 days of becoming a member.

A reciprocal referral bonus opportunity allows you to refer new members once you’ve signed up and started shopping.

Rakuten Cash Back Visa Credit Card

The Rakuten Cash Back Visa Credit Card is a branded Visa cash-back credit card that pays 3% cash back on most purchases made through Rakuten, including in-store cash-back offers and most travel purchases. All non-Rakuten purchases earn 1% cash back. You also get a $10 cash bonus after your first card purchase.

Mobile Apps

Rakuten has responsive mobile apps for iOS and Android. These apps are the best way to take advantage of coupons for in-person shopping trips. Simply display the coupon or promo code on your phone or tablet’s Rakuten app at checkout.

Customer Support

If you can’t find the answer to your question in the FAQ section, there’s a support ticketing system that typically produces a response within one or two business days. Rakuten doesn’t publicize a customer support phone number.


Rakuten has some notable advantages, including a mobile-friendly website, plentiful instant discount opportunities, and a generous cash-back credit card.

  1. Highly Functional, Mobile-Friendly Website. Rakuten’s website runs smoothly and is mobile-friendly, aided by an impressive browser extension (the Rakuten Cash Back Button). Some competing platforms are dogged by frustrating website errors or poor mobile functionality.
  2. Plentiful Instant Discount Opportunities. Rakuten features thousands of active coupons at any given time. Some are good for discounts on specific products, while others cover broader product categories. Some retailers appear to use Rakuten coupons to clear seasonal inventory. By comparison, TopCashback hardly has any instant deals or coupons, a major drawback for shoppers who want immediate discounts.
  3. Cash Back Credit Card Offers Another Way to Earn. The Rakuten Cash Back Visa credit card offers 3% cash back on purchases made through Rakuten. It also comes with a $10 sign-up bonus and 1% cash back on all other purchases, similar to the Chase Freedom card and other popular cash-back credit cards. Some competing cash-back websites omit credit card options, disadvantaging reward-seeking consumers with above-average credit scores.
  4. Nice Sign-Up Bonus. Rakuten offers up to $40 simply for signing up and making qualifying purchases during the first 90 days.


Rakuten’s disadvantages include no “highest payout” guarantee, pushy prompts, and a potentially inflexible payout schedule.

  1. No “Highest Payout” Guarantee. Rakuten has a lot of competitors that offer deals and discounts with the same retailers. TopCashback has an expansive “highest cash back” guarantee that essentially promises to beat any nonsubscription competitor’s posted deals. If you’re looking for such a guarantee, Rakuten isn’t the shopping discount or cash-back platform for you.
  2. Pushy Sign-Up Prompts. Nonmember visitors to Rakuten are inundated with frequent popups advertising the company’s sign-up bonus. Since the ad is embedded in the site itself, it’s immune to most popup blockers. Though all competitors pressure nonmember site visitors to some extent, Rakuten is probably the most insistent.
  3. Quarterly Payments Can Be Inflexible. Rakuten’s infrequent cash-back payout schedule is a major drawback for shoppers who count on cash back to provide breathing room in their monthly personal budgets. You get paid a maximum of four times per year, regardless of how much you shop or earn.
  4. Payments Only Come by Mailed Check and PayPal. Rakuten only pays out by mailed check or PayPal. Its competitors tend to be more flexible – some offer Amazon credits, for example.

Final Word

Rakuten is a great resource for shoppers who want to get more for less. If you’re a regular online shopper, there’s little downside to creating a Rakuten account, joining the rewards program, and keeping tabs on the site. It’s a legit platform, not a scam, and offers real potential to earn free money.

Then again, Rakuten and its fellow online cash-back sites don’t create money out of thin air. They simply put a small portion of the funds you spend back into your pocket. So while Rakuten is great for saving money on items you were already planning to purchase, don’t let it dictate your shopping decisions or encourage impulse buying.


10 Awesome Websites That Let You Estimate Your Home’s Value

Reader Interactions

Good Financial Cents, and author of the personal finance book Soldier of Finance. Jeff is an Iraqi combat veteran and served 9 years in the Army National Guard. His work is regularly featured in Forbes, Business Insider, and Entrepreneur.

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If You’re Interested in Personal Finance Books, We Answer 3 Questions About Them Here

Much of the best personal finance advice out there is found in books, where the entire scope of a personal finance plan can be explored in depth. Your local library has a plethora of personal finance books on the shelves, covering almost any sub-topic you could want, and can request many more if you simply ask.

But among all of those books, there are questions. Which personal finance book is the best? Which one is right for me? How does the advice in a personal finance book apply in today’s world where we’re dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences? Let’s look in-depth at some of those issues.

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1. What’s the best personal finance book?

What is the best personal finance book? There are thousands of them on Amazon and I don’t know which ones are worth reading.

– Max

It’s hard to define what “best” really means in terms of something like personal finance because people are coming to these books from such different places in their lives. A person in their 20s at the start of a great career, single and earning a good salary, is going to be looking for something much different than the type of book that would appeal to someone in their 50s who has always struggled to make money and is now very scared about retirement.

Thus, if you’re looking for the “best” personal finance book, you would want one that explains core concepts of personal finance in a way that’s meaningful and applicable to a lot of people.

[ More: More Americans Are Using Retirement Savings to Cover Expenses ]

One very good choice in that regard is “Your Money or Your Life” by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. The book focuses on examining personal finance through the lens of how much of your life you’re devoting to earning money, and thus how much of your life you’re spending with each transaction, casting money-saving decisions in a very powerful light. It is an incredibly powerful argument for spending less in the modern world, and overspending is one financial challenge almost all of us face.

Aside from that, look for a personal finance book that matches your life situation. For example, if you’re young, look for a book targeting folks in their 20s and 30s, like “Get a Financial Life” by Beth Kobliner.

2. How do I explore frugal hedonism while isolated?

I enjoyed learning about “The Art of Frugal Hedonism” and I picked it up from the library recently. Disappointed to find that it was mostly about doing things socially, which is much harder right now. How do you do frugal hedonism when you’re isolated?

– Dana

“The Art of Frugal Hedonism” is a great book that addresses saving money from an interesting perspective. It views frugality as a creative constraint, meaning that it nudges you to explore new things that you may not have done before, and those new things often expose you to pleasures that are entirely new to you.

Many of the examples given by the authors throughout the book are indeed oriented toward spending time with others, which is a difficult challenge for those practicing social distancing or socially isolated for other reasons. In our conversation with author Annie Raser-Rowland, she even directly points this out as a problem, noting that there’s no easy way around it.

So, what can a socially isolated person do to practice frugal hedonism? You can start by simply trying a wide range of low-cost solo activities and hobbies, particularly things you’ve never tried before. Try growing some vegetables in the spring, learning how to knit or learn how to cook.

[ Next: The Best Personal Finance Books ]

You can, in fact, be a frugal introvert. There are many things you can do solo that is quite inexpensive. Go through that list and pick out a few that you haven’t tried before that seem like they have at least a bit of potential to be interesting, and try them. Some will click, and that’s great. Some won’t, but then at least you’ll have an interesting story to tell.

3. What is the best Dave Ramsey book?

I have been listening to Dave Ramsey on the radio recently and I like his advice. I looked on Amazon and they have several books by him. Which one is the best or the best to read first?

– Michael

Hands down, the best Dave Ramsey book is “The Total Money Makeover.” The reason is that, among all of Dave’s books, it’s the one that leans in the strongest to his core message.

Dave Ramsey is extremely good at practical psychology. He’s very good at helping people define the personal finance problem they’re facing and have the willpower to overcome it through motivational tactics. He leans into that strength, which is great, but by doing so, he’s perhaps not so good at other areas. He chooses to offer motivational predictions rather than offer extremely accurate numbers, which is why he’ll consistently overestimate stock market returns when he delves into investments because doing so motivates people to turn toward investing.

That’s why “The Total Money Makeover” stands out amongst all of Dave’s books. It sticks with the practical psychology of debt and focuses on developing a debt repayment plan, his variant of which he calls the debt snowball, and how to motivate yourself to actually pull it off. This is the area where Dave shines, and it’s never more clear than in this book.

Do you have any questions? The best way to ask is to follow me on Facebook and ask questions directly there. I’ll attempt to answer them in a future mailbag (which, via full disclosure, may also get re-posted on other websites that pick up my blog). However, I do receive many, many questions per week, so I may not necessarily be able to answer yours.

We welcome your feedback on this article. Contact us at with comments or questions.


Why maximalism is the perfect decor trend for people living in small spaces – Insider

Why maximalism is the perfect home decor trend for small spaces

Megan Zeitz/Sarah Unsworth
  • Maximalism has become more popular over the last year, particularly in small spaces.
  • It brings personality and depth to a home, according to experts.
  • The key to making maximalism work in your small space is to be intentional about your design.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Before the pandemic, there was a period of time where nothing was everything when it came to decor.

Whether it was Kim Kardashian West’s all-beige home or your friend’s new affinity for throwing away things that didn’t spark joy, minimalism was definitely “in” throughout 2019.

But over the last year, people have grown less interested in the less-is-more lifestyle, especially those who live in tiny homes or apartments.

According to Pinterest data, people are searching for “maximalist decor” five times more and “maximalist decor small spaces” three times more often on Pinterest now than they were a year ago.

Likewise, a quick scroll through Instagram or TikTok will show you a plethora of small spaces filled with color that are much more in line with maximalist decor.

Experts told Insider that the rise of maximalism is likely a result of people spending more time at home — and it’s a change they’re excited about.

Maximalism is a ‘more is more’ design style

As the name suggests, maximalism is a design aesthetic that leans into “more” to make a house feel like home. You can expect to see brightly colored walls covered in artwork, an abundance of plants, and statement furniture in a maximalist space.

It’s the polar opposite of minimalism, which was popular in 2019 thanks in part to shows like “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo.”

And while there’s certainly something to be said for decluttering, Michelle Fahmy, an interior designer and one of Apartment Therapy’s Changemakers for 2021, told Insider she thinks maximalism is often more practical for people in their day-to-day lives than minimalism.

megan zietz 2.JPG

Maximalism encourages personality in home spaces.
Megan Zietz

“Minimalism is quite beautiful when done right, but there is also a starkness to it, an unlived-in and museum-like quality which makes it much less practical when you are living your everyday life, making your home your place of refuge, trying to raise a family, or setting up an impromptu home office,” Fahmy said.

“There is something about maximalism that allows people to be free and experiment, to have fun with the items and design choices in their space,” she added. “Maximalism gives people the freedom to express themselves through their surroundings.”

Megan Zietz, who decorated her space with maximalism in mind, echoed Fahmy. 

“For me, maximalism encourages utilizing our small space in the boldest way possible,” she said. “It gives me the opportunity to play with colors, prints, and textures you wouldn’t necessarily think to use together.”

Maximalism has become more popular in the last year

Experts think it’s no coincidence that maximalism started trending during the pandemic.

“While stuck at home, people want to decorate their homes in a way that makes them feel good and reminds them of special moments, hence the rise in maximalism,” Swasti Sarna, Pinterest’s senior insights manager, told Insider. 

Danielle Blundell, Apartment Therapy’s home director, agreed, telling Insider maximalism has a “cozy factor” that makes sense for people spending more time at home.

“It’s the idea of layering and filling a space with the things that you love in a way that can make you happy,” she said. “When your home is full of all the things that you like, it can actually boost your mood and make you happier and provide lots of different stimuli to let your eye wander around the space.”

sarah unsworth 2

Maximalism can make homes feel bigger.
Sarah Unsworth

Fahmy also said maximalist decor can actually make a home feel larger when done right, which makes it a great design style for small spaces.

“Your eye only has so much ground to cover in a smaller space, so packing it in with thoughtful elements helps to actually make the space feel larger,” she said.

Experts told Insider that people who live in small spaces often pair maximalism with mid-century modern decor, as the latter can be a grounding style.

“The mid-century serves as a strong grounding presence in a small space because of its streamlined aesthetic,” Karina Lameraner, a creative stylist for the online interior design service Modsy, told Insider. “Maximalism beautifully contrasts this by inviting playful and adventurous elements into the space.”

The key to making maximalism work in your small space is intentional design

Maximalism is effective in a small space when the things in a room don’t look haphazard or thrown together, so it’s important to focus on the overall effect of a room when picking out pieces for it. 

“The trick to achieving maximalism in your small space is ensuring that colors, textures, and patterns all work together — and not against one another,” Lameraner told Insider. “Small spaces require layering as opposed to spreading, which means that the pieces you choose need to play off one another.”

She suggests picking items that have similar patterns or shapes to create a sense of cohesion. For instance, your couch and your bookshelf might both have rounded edges, or you can pick pillows that match the pattern on your rug.

Blundell said it’s important to keep in mind that even maximalist spaces need to have some negative space, which can help ensure the room doesn’t feel too busy. 

You can create negative space by leaving some parts of the walls blank, by having open space on shelves, or by making sure flooring is visible under a rug, according to Blundell.

Blundell also suggests buying simple furniture to ground a room, leaving the maximalist touches to more decorative pieces.

megan zietz 1.JPG

The key to maximalism in a small space is intentional design.
Megan Zietz

Fahmy encouraged people who want to embrace maximalism to decorate slowly rather than all at once. You can add one statement piece to the room, and then see what you might need from there.

“As you add more, take a moment to stand back and look at the space,” she said. “There is an element of just the right amount of restraint that is needed when being a maximalist.”

Likewise, Fahmy thinks it’s important to remember that maximalism gives people the opportunity to put things that are important to them on display.

“Bring out those tchotchkes from your travels that have been tucked away and group them as a fun display on your mantle or shelf,” Fahmy gave as an example.

Maximalism can help you turn your home into one giant keepsake, quite literally turning a house into a home.

3 Things No One Tells You About Buying a House

This past November, my boyfriend and I were lucky enough to buy our first home — even with student loans and an ongoing pandemic. 

Not even COVID-19 could dull the thrill of buying a home, though it did make it an incredibly sterile process (pun intended). Even though I write about mortgages and buying a home for a living, the process still came with many learnings. Now, this might seem obvious for seasoned home buyers, but for my first-time home buyers, this one’s for you. 

1. Be prepared to feel financial anxiety

Millennials grow up thinking that they’ll never be able to afford anything — or at least I did. Because of that, I thought my days of buying a house were years away. But after a frank conversation about just how much we were paying in rent, we realized that buying a house was a much better investment of our money.

[ Read: How Do You Know You’re Ready to Buy Your First Home? ]

That said, your mortgage isn’t the only number that you need to think about when you’re deciding to buy. Don’t forget about things like closing costs or your down payment.

So, when the full-blown “no way I can afford this” panic set in, we sat down and evaluated our finances — and not just how much money we each had in the bank. We took into account our bills, student loan payments and potential monthly mortgage payments in a simple excel spreadsheet. Seeing it all laid out in front of us made things doable. 

It’s important to compare your financial obligations to how much you make and consider how much you could afford if you lost your job. 

2. With purchasing power, comes great responsibility

I chose where I went to college and what I do for a living, but I’ve never felt more in control of things in my life. Which admittedly was pretty terrifying because I had no idea what I was doing.

Our realtor was helpful, but when it came down to it, he could only suggest things. Ultimately every decision landed on us. Not all choices were complicated  — deciding on which house to pick was easy enough. After we shopped around for rates and compared who was going to give us the best terms, we chose our lender. But everything after putting an offer in was where things got tricky. 

[ Read: Best Mortgage Rates for February 2021 ]

From what inspections you want to which lawyer you want to use, you have to decide, even when you have no idea if you made the right choice. 

You also have to decide how much house you should buy, not just how much you can “afford.” I can’t explain the flurry of utter shock when we were pre-approved for a $600,000 mortgage. There was no chance we could actually afford that price. Even if a pre-approval doesn’t guarantee a mortgage, don’t let a high number like that lead you to take on more than your finances truly allow. 

3. The lessons will never end

There is no such thing as perfection when it comes to purchasing a home. There will be repairs to be made, and budgets to reevaluate. But with an open mindset, the inconveniences can become learnings. Here are my top three.

Everyone may know the word appraisal, but not what it really means

I happened to be buying a home at the same time as a friend, and it was interesting to see the noticeable differences between our journeys. They ran into trouble with their appraisal, which at the time I thought was a very obvious process. However, their experience makes me realize that knowing something topically doesn’t mean you understand the implications. 

A home appraisal is required and will be coordinated by your lender. But if the offer accepted by the seller was for $300,000 and the appraisal values the home at only $290,000, your lender is only going to give you what the home is worth.

If you don’t have an extra $10,000 lying around to cover that gap, you’ll have to check if the seller will come down. Thankfully it all worked out for my friend, however, had it not, they would have lost money when they would have been forced to walk. 

In this article

Really think about what to spend money on

Given that the coronavirus is still very much around, we thought it best to forgo movers or painters to keep our bubble as small as possible. Not to mention the added benefit of saving a significant amount of money. 

[ Read: 7 Crucial Steps to Buying a Home in 2021 ]

If I could go back, I would pay for one, if not both. It was a ton of added stress and time that could’ve been saved. That said, the money saved cannot be ignored. The thing about buying a house is that you need a million things right from the start, especially if you’re moving out from an apartment, as I did. 

Most people likely cannot afford to pay painters, movers and all the things you need right from the start at the same time. Think about what your priorities are. For me, it was painting. If you’re fine with the walls’ colors, save that expense for later and focus on movers or the work your house needs. 

COVID-19 made for a memorable experience

In response to the pandemic, lenders have added extra employment verification steps to the process. If you lose your job, you may have to stop the process and reapply later. Yet, the pandemic’s reach went beyond just the underwriting process. 

If I saw my realtor on the street post-pandemic, I would not recognize him. We wore masks for the entire process, and even the official closing was done outside in the cold, with two pairs of sterile gloves and masks. It was not an exciting event like many people describe. The most exciting part of closing was getting to keep the pen at the end. 

We welcome your feedback on this article. Contact us at with comments or questions.

Image credit: Bibadash / Shutterstock


AimLoan Review: You Can Check Their Rates and Fees 24/7

Posted on February 22nd, 2021

Today we’ll take a look at American Internet Mortgage, more commonly known as “AimLoan,” which is a streamlined discount mortgage lender that focuses mostly on conforming loans.

Doing so allows them to do what they do best, and ideally offer lower mortgage rates to their customers by running more efficiently and keeping costs low.

At the time of this writing, they were offering the lowest APR for both a 30-year fixed and a 15-year fixed mortgage for a sample loan scenario on the Zillow Mortgage Marketplace.

So they appear to offer competitive interest rates and reasonable lender fees. Let’s find out more about them.

AimLoan Fast Facts

  • Direct-to-consumer mortgage lender that offers home purchase and refinance loans
  • Founded in 1998, headquartered in San Diego, California
  • Funded roughly $1.3 billion in home loans last year
  • Most active in the states of California, Arizona, and Texas
  • Licensed to do business in all 50 states and D.C.

AimLoan is a proper veteran in the mortgage industry, having been around since 1998. Not many companies last that long without being acquired or going out of business.

The San Diego, CA-based direct mortgage lender was founded by Vince Kasperick, who continues to serve as the company’s president.

Since that time, they’ve funded more than $23 billion in home loans, with nearly $1.3 billion originated last year.

Their bread and butter product is the mortgage refinance, whether it’s a rate and term refinance or a cash out refinance. But they also offer home purchase loans too.

They tend to stick to plain vanilla loans, meaning straightforward stuff that can easily be sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac shortly after funding.

AimLoan operates as a direct-to-consumer mortgage lender, meaning it’s a call center you can’t visit in person. So you’ll be working with a loan officer and processor remotely.

The company appears to be most active in their home state of California, which accounts for more than a quarter of total loan volume.

They also do a lot of business in nearby Arizona and Texas, along with Florida and Georgia.

At the moment, AimLoan is licensed to lend in all 50 states nationwide, along with the District of Columbia.

How to Apply for a Mortgage with AimLoan

  • They offer the so-called AimLoan 6-Step Process
  • It starts with a digital mortgage application powered by Ellie Mae
  • Then your loan is run through their automated underwriting system
  • Once approved you can manage your loan via the online borrower portal and upload any required conditions

It’s easy to apply for a home loan with AimLoan. Simply visit their website and click on “Apply Now.”

From there you’ll need to provide personal and financial information, then your application will be run through their automated underwriting system.

Assuming you receive a conditional loan approval, you’ll be given the opportunity to lock or float your rate at your desired fee/credit combination.

A human loan officer and loan processor will also assist you along the way and provide you with a list of any conditions that need to be met.

During that time, a home appraisal will be scheduled if necessary and third-party items like title and escrow will be set up.

Speaking of, you will be asked to submit an appraisal fee at the time you lock your rate, which kind of acts like the application fee, though it covers the appraisal if and when you fund.

All in all, they appear to make it pretty simple to apply, lock, and close your loan.

If you don’t want to use their self-service option, you can also call them up directly and connect with a loan officer before beginning the application.

Loan Programs Offered by AimLoan

  • Home purchase loans
  • Rate and term refinances
  • Cash out refinances
  • Conforming loans backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac
  • VA loans
  • Fixed-rate mortgages: 30-, 25-, 20-, 15-, and 10-year terms available
  • They lend on primary residences, second homes, and investment properties (1-4 units)

As alluded to, AimLoan is a streamlined mortgage lender that likes to keep its product menu short and sweet.

Doing so allows them to offer lower rates and superior customer service. But it also means you may not be able to get what you’re looking for.

While they offer all the usual stuff, like home purchase loans and mortgage refinances, along with conforming loans and VA loans, several items appear to be missing.

Those include jumbo loans, which exceed the conforming loan limit, along with FHA loans and USDA loans. If you’re in need of one of these loan types, you may need to go elsewhere.

Additionally, while you can get a fixed-rate mortgage in a variety of loan terms, they aren’t offering adjustable-rate mortgages at the moment.

Or at least not displaying them on their website because they say they’re currently pricing higher than fixed rates, which tends to be true.

AimLoan Mortgage Rates

One advantage to using AimLoan is the fact that you can see their mortgage rates online. And you don’t need to sign up or speak to someone first.

Additionally, you can compare a variety of rates all at once tailored to your own unique loan scenario, instead of simply looking at promotional rates that make a bunch of assumptions.

To get started, simply head to the AimLoan website and start filling out the instant rate quote form on the homepage. It’s easy to complete and you should see a variety of rates in about a minute.

In terms of fees, they appear to charge a flat $995 origination fee, which can often be offset by a lender credit.

They say their pricing model differs from other lenders because their profit is mostly from that flat fee.

As such, they can pass on the savings to consumers by not marking up the pricing they receive on the secondary market.

Anyway, once you click on a given mortgage rate, it will show you a full fee breakdown including their fees and third-party costs like appraisal and title insurance.

You can also get an idea of cash to close by inputting your estimated property taxes and current loan balance if it’s a refinance.

If you like what you see, simply click on “Apply Now” or “Talk to a Loan Officer” to get started on your application.

AimLoan Reviews

On Zillow, they have a 4.15-star rating out of 5 from nearly 400 customer reviews, which is good but not excellent. There are some mixed reviews that seem to be dragging down their overall score.

On Google, they have a 4.3-star rating from nearly 300 reviews, and on Bankrate a 4.4-rating from almost 200 reviews with an 84% recommend score.

AimLoan has a more inferior 3.5-star rating on Yelp from about 300 reviews.

They also list a bunch of customer reviews on their own website, though it’s unclear if they provide much value.

Lastly, they have a 4.61/5-star rating with the Better Business Bureau and an ‘A+’ rating based on complaint history.

They’ve been an accredited business since 2015 and were awarded the BBB Torch Award for Ethics, which goes to businesses with “the highest standards of leadership character and organizational ethics.”

To sum it up, AimLoan is probably best suited for an existing homeowner looking to refinance their mortgage to a lower rate, who doesn’t have a complicated scenario.

I’m talking someone with good credit, a steady W-2 job, and nothing out of the ordinary to ensure the loan process moves along smoothly.

Those who have more complex loan scenarios or need more hand-holding may want to consider other lenders.

AimLoan Pros and Cons

The Good Stuff

  • Can apply for a mortgage directly from their website
  • Offer a digital application powered by Ellie Mae (ICE)
  • View mortgage rates online without providing contact info
  • Offer 60-day rate locks standard
  • Licensed to do business in all 50 states and D.C.
  • Mostly good customer reviews
  • A+ BBB rating, accredited since 2015
  • Free mortgage calculators and mortgage glossary on site

The Perhaps Not

  • Do not appear to offer FHA, jumbo, or USDA loans
  • Typically do not allow FICO scores below 620
  • Do not finance co-ops or manufactured/mobile homes
  • No physical locations

(photo: Ann Oro)


How I Hit My 80,000 Chase Bonus in One Month

Please Note: The 80,000 welcome bonus is no longer available.

This past fall, Chase offered a uniquely large welcome bonus, 80,000 points (worth up to $1,000), for signing up for their Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. Well, the marketing worked on me — I love exclusivity and a good deal. I didn’t have a travel rewards card previously and figured it was a good time to start building up points for when international vacations were viable again.

To earn the bonus, you had to spend $4,000 in the first three months and sign up by November 8th. Well, I signed up in November and hit the bonus just one month later. There’s certainly no advantage to hitting the bonus so quickly, except perhaps for peace of mind. Clearly, I was excited and I have little control. 

80,000 bonus point mindset  

I was able to hit the spending required to earn the bonus with a combination of luck and intention. I made a few conscious decisions and rearranged spending I planned for the year into these few months (stuff for my apartment for example.) But the seasonality of the deal falling during the holidays was certainly a big contributor to earning the bonus so fast. As well as some convenient medical procedures for me and my furry roommates. 

My Taurus self is absolutely prone to luxury and self-care splurging. So needing to hit the welcome bonus only encouraged my buy-first think-later tendencies. If your financial habits trend more towards frugality, here are some of the ways I hit the bonus that may offer inspiration for your own rewards card minimums. 

Christmas gifts galore


One of the reasons I felt confident I could hit the $4,000 spending requirement was the timeliness of the offer. I signed up for the record-high bonus in November, which meant a couple of months of holiday shopping. A significant chunk of my spending minimum was met by purchasing Christmas gifts for my family and friends.  

And my moms’ Christmas shopping too


I also took opportunities to pay for family member’s Christmas shopping using my card. They’d pay me back later and I’d earn points for their spending. If we were at a store together, I’d just pay for our things together. Or for example, when there was something on Amazon my Mom wanted to purchase for my Dad but didn’t want him to see it on their shared Amazon account, I would buy it for her and earn points for her shopping too. 

Took advantage of the season of giving


In the spirit of the holidays, I picked up the tab and paid it forward more often. I’d cover takeout on game nights with the family, I’d pay for the grocery or Costco run for my household and would buy coffee for the person behind me in line. My intentions weren’t entirely pure here and it added up to a significant chunk of spending towards my welcome bonus. 

I got a dental crown


A blessing and a curse — my first dental crown fell within my first month of having the Chase card. The out-of-pocket cost after insurance was a big factor in hitting my bonus so quickly. And in case you’re curious, I do floss every day! The doctor said it was probably genetic, thanks, Dad. 

Two of my cats were spayed


Our two quarantine kitties were due to be spayed during November as well. I used the Chase Sapphire card to pay for their operations, which totaled a couple hundred towards the spending minimum. This was certainly another instance of convenient timing. 

In this article

I bought a TV on Black Friday


I splurged on a Black Friday sale at Costco and purchased a 65” 4K TV for my apartment. I already needed a TV for when I moved into my new apartment and knowing I’d be working towards some quintessential travel points by purchasing certainly encouraged me to pull the trigger. 

I supported small businesses


The push to support local restaurants with takeout and my need to spend a certain amount of money made for an expensive combination. I more freely ordered food and purchased local goods knowing there was that additional incentive. Let’s just say, my local Thai spot should dedicate a curry dish in my name.

We welcome your feedback on this article. Contact us at with comments or questions.

Image Credit: Fizkes / Shutterstock


Women’s Finances Are Taking a Hit. Here’s How to Combat It.

The pressure of the pandemic both in and out of the workforce is having a significant impact on women and their financial futures. According to a recent UBS Global Wealth Management survey, 61% of women feel that Covid-19 has hurt their careers. 

Key findings:

Financial challenges during the Covid pandemic

In response to the financial insecurity during the pandemic, there has been a 12% increase in the percentage of women reviewing their finances — up to 45%. While the increase suggests a positive story for women’s control over finances, it also suggests a gap between their work expectations and their current reality.

[ Read: How Women Can Close the Retirement Savings Gap ]

Women are taking on more than just the burden of decreased hours and stalling career progressions. Seventy percent report handling cooking, while 67% are taking on childcare and remote learning on top of their day jobs. 

A report by the Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion found that of those currently not working because of caregiving needs, 80% are women. This in turn is adding family care challenges, as well as childcare costs related to remote work and school. We spoke to Kelly Wittich, CFP®, FTB Financial Services team at UBS Financial Services, about the steps women can take to safeguard their financial stability. Here’s what she had to say. 

What advice do you have for women who are having trouble with their finances?

The first thing I would say to women struggling right now is, take a moment, breathe, and realize you are not alone. The pandemic has impacted many people, especially women, as they have had to assume more roles and responsibilities in their everyday lives. For many women, this is a setback, but not a permanent one. 

I suggest focusing on the areas where you have control. Take this time to assess where you want to be when our lives return to a more normal pace. Reflect on the past year – ask yourself what you enjoyed. Was it more family time, alone time, and working from home? What did you not enjoy? Taking the time to reflect will allow you to focus on what is important, and then you can begin to take action.  

[ Read: A Woman’s Guide to Negotiating a Pay Raise ]

Do you want more out of your career? Talk to your boss and colleagues. Is there a better role in the company? Do you need to find a new job or switch your career? Should you enroll in online classes now that will help achieve this? Were you more effective working from home? Talk to your company so you can agree to a more flexible work schedule. 

In this article

What actions can women take to stay on track for retirement?  

To quote Mark Twain, “The secret to getting ahead is getting started.” Revisit your plan and understand where you are headed. Are you still on track to achieve your goals?

If you do not have a plan, find a partner such as a trusted family member, friend or financial advisor and draft a plan. Once you understand your plan, you will be able to focus on the specific action steps, like saving more, spending less, adjusting your retirement age, or refinancing. This will give you confidence and control over your future.

Experts Cited

Kelly L. Wittich CFP®Kelly L. Wittich CFP®

Kelly L. Wittich CFP®

Senior Vice President-Wealth Management, UBS

Kelly L. Wittich is a financial advisor in Cincinnati, OH and Senior Vice President-Wealth Management with FTB Financial Services at UBS Financial Services. She has been in practice for 15 years.

We welcome your feedback on this article. Contact us at with comments or questions.

Image Credit: MT-R / Shutterstock


TurboTax Review: What to Know About the Online Tax Filing Service

Tax season is pretty much nobody’s idea of fun.

Fortunately, there’s a wide range of digital DIY tax filing services available to help you get your paperwork right and file your taxes online without spending your entire refund on an accountant.

In this TurboTax review, we’re covering everything you need to know about its online filing services and tax software and how it stacks up to its competitors.

TurboTax: How Does It Work?

Perhaps the best-known of the digital filing options, TurboTax is the tax-focused baby of Intuit, the same company behind Mint and Quickbooks.

As such, it’s not surprising that TurboTax has a dazzling array of financial tools to help you during tax time as well as year round, regardless of your tax situation.

TurboTax offers both totally DIY filing options as well as an upgraded suite of DIY filing with live online help. You can also purchase its tax preparation software on CD or by download, which can help you save even more money. You pay a one-time fee and get up to five included federal filings, though you’ll likely still need to pay to file your state tax return.

Here’s what the pricing tiers look like at TurboTax. (These prices are current as of January 2021 and are subject to change.)

Free Edition

The TurboTax Free Edition is appropriate for filers with simple tax returns. It covers W-2 income, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EIC) and child tax credits. True to its name, it’s free — but few peoples’ taxes are truly basic, and this tier doesn’t cover as many filers as competitors’ free options.

Cost: $0


The TurboTax Deluxe edition includes everything the Free Edition does, plus mortgage and property tax deductions, charitable donations, student loan interest, education expenses and 1099-MISC income — i.e. earnings of an independent contractor like a freelance writer or Uber driver.

If freelance work is your sole source of income, you’ll be better off using the TurboTax Self-Employed edition, which is described below.

Cost: $40 for federal filing, plus $40 per state


TurboTax Premier includes everything you get in Deluxe, as well as coverage for tax deductions and credits for things like stock market and cryptocurrency investments, rental property income and refinancing deductions. It also has a feature that lets you auto-import your investment income reports.

Cost: $70 for federal filing, plus $40 per state


TurboTax Self-Employed helps you prepare tax returns with personal and business income, so it’s a fit for freelancers, independent contractors and small business owners.

This edition includes a host of features specifically designed for freelancers, such as:

Cost: $90 for federal filing, plus $40 per state

Woman sits a table doing taxes.
Aileen Perilla/ The Penny Hoarder

TurboTax Live

For each of the products above, TurboTax lets you upgrade to TurboTax Live to get on-demand answers and a line-by-line review of your taxes by a tax expert — CPA or EA.

Cost: TurboTax Live comes in tiers similar to its DIY products:

Weighing your options for filing taxes? We’ve got you covered with an overview of all the best tax software.


No matter which tier works best for you — and there’s an easy, clickable questionnaire that helps you figure out the right product based on your tax situation — all TurboTax customers get access to a wide range of tools, guarantees and features.

Audit Support Guarantee

TurboTax guarantees the accuracy of your taxes and stands behind that promise with its Audit Support Guarantee, which grants you free access to the Audit Support Center.

If you’re audited by the IRS, you can access the support center to get free, live, one-on-one guidance with a tax professional, as well as year-round answers to your questions and assistance on what to expect and how to prepare. This service is not, however, a replacement for legal advice.

Money-Back Maximum Refund Guarantee

TurboTax guarantees you’ll get the biggest refund possible. If you tally up a larger refund (or similar tax liability) with another tax preparation service, TurboTax will refund your fee (or pay you $30 if you used the Free edition).

Mobile Apps for Apple and Android

TurboTax lets you file from your smartphone or tablet with popular and highly rated apps for both Android and iOS. You can use the app to track charitable donations and deductible expenses throughout the year.

Refund Advance

If you need your money post-haste, TurboTax offers a refund advance of up to $3,000 of your expected federal tax refund with 0% interest and $0 loan fees. To be eligible, your expected refund must be at least $500.

If you’re eligible, you’ll get the funds within as little as three hours of the IRS accepting your tax return, loaded onto a Visa debit card. You’ll get the virtual card info, so you can spend online right away, and the physical card should come in the mail in five to 10 business days.

Once the IRS processes your federal return, your remaining refund amount will be loaded onto the same debit card. You don’t have the option to receive the rest of your refund in another form (e.g. direct deposited into your savings account).

Pay-With-My-Refund Options

TurboTax lets you pay your product and filing fees with your federal tax refund, meaning you never see an out-of-pocket cost for the service. There is, however, an additional fee for this option; most users report a charge of $39.99, though this price is subject to change.

Woman sits a table doing taxes.
Aileen Perilla/ The Penny Hoarder


To prepare and file your tax returns through TurboTax, you’ll pay a fee for the filing program or software, plus additional fees to file your state return. Here’s how that looks:

If you owe taxes after you file, you can pay through TurboTax’s payment processor via credit card or debit card for a convenience fee.

TurboTax also helps you pay via direct debit from your bank account for free. This is an option not all competitors offer; with other tax services, you’d have to go directly to the IRS to pay this way.

TurboTax: Pros and Cons

Now that we’ve laid out the basics of TurboTax’s features, what’s the verdict on its performance? Like all financial products and services, there are both pros and cons to using TurboTax.



Who Is TurboTax Best For?

When it comes right down to it, most online tax preparation services are more alike than they are different.

TurboTax may be best for someone who wants custom tax help without going into an office and dealing with a live person. It’s also a good option if you’re looking for a truly fee-free line of advance tax credit so you can access your money ASAP.

Remember, you can always file for free, if you’re eligible, through the IRS portal. This service is available to filers who earned $72,000 or less (in 2020), and the page also links to free fillable forms for earners at all levels.

Still comparison shopping? Check out our reviews of H&R Block and TaxAct before you make a decision.