How to Compare Mortgage Refinance Offers

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If you own a home, you probably see a lot of advertisements or get mail about refinancing your mortgage. Refinancing your home loan can help you save money, lower your interest rate, or convert an adjustable-rate mortgage to a fixed-rate mortgage.

To get the best deal on your refinance, you need to compare offers from multiple lenders. Read on to learn how to evaluate these offers and select the option that best fits your needs.

How to Compare Mortgage Refinance Offers

When you apply for any type of loan, whether it’s a mortgage, car loan, or personal loan, you should take the time to comparison-shop. If you look at multiple loan offers, you’ll usually find a better deal.

1. Check Your Credit Score

The first thing to do when you’re thinking about refinancing your loan is check your credit score. Credit scores are one of the first things that a lender will look at when a borrower submits a loan application.

The better your credit score, the better your odds of getting approved for a loan. A good credit score also gives you more loan options to choose from and may help you secure a lower interest rate on the loan you eventually chose. And that’s likely to save you some money in the long run.

If you have a poor credit score, the loans you qualify for might involve higher upfront fees and a higher interest rate than your existing loan. That could defeat the purpose of refinancing. 

It’s easy to check your credit report for free. If you find errors on your report, work with the reporting credit bureau to remove them. And if you find your credit isn’t as strong as you thought, table the idea of refinancing for the time being and work on boosting your FICO score.

2. Consider Your Goals for Refinancing

Before you apply for a new mortgage loan, think about your goals for refinancing. Your reason for refinancing will make a huge difference in the loan you choose. 

For example, if you want to lower your monthly payment, you wouldn’t want to refinance to a loan with a shorter term. If you want a lower mortgage interest rate, you wouldn’t choose a loan with a higher rate.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common reasons you might want to refinance your mortgage.

Lower Monthly Payments

Refinancing your mortgage can help you reduce your monthly payment, giving you more flexibility in your budget. Extending the term of the loan or reducing its interest rate are two ways to do this.

Lower Interest Rate

If rates have decreased or your credit has improved since you got your current loan, refinancing your mortgage can help you reduce your interest rate, which will save you money in the long run.

Remove PMI

If your down payment for your current mortgage was less than 20%, you likely have to pay for private mortgage insurance (PMI). If your current loan-to-value ratio has risen above 20% due to your loan payments or increasing home values, refinancing can help you get out of paying PMI.

Cash Out Home Equity

If you’ve built a lot of equity in your home and want to use it for something else, like home improvement or investing, use a cash-out refinance to turn your home equity into money you can spend.

Adjust the Loan Term

Refinancing your mortgage lets you reset its term. You can extend the loan’s term or shorten it based on your financial goals.

Add or Remove a Co-Borrower

If you want to add a co-borrower or remove someone from a loan, the easiest way to do so is likely to refinance your loan. For example, you might refinance to remove an ex-spouse from your loan.

Convert an Adjustable Rate to a Fixed Rate or Vice Versa

Refinancing is an opportunity to switch from an adjustable rate to a fixed rate or vice versa, reversing the choice you made when you got your original mortgage. 

Switching from an adjustable-rate mortgage to a fixed-rate mortgage prevents a potential interest rate spike after the adjustable-rate loan’s rate lock period ends. Meanwhile, converting to an adjustable-rate mortgage could temporarily lower your rate — as long as you plan to sell during the rate lock period.

3. Compare Mortgage Lenders

Once you’ve made sure your credit is in good shape, take a look at a few different lenders. You can consider lenders in your local area like banks and credit unions as well as online lenders.

To find the best mortgage for your needs, look for a lender that is advertising the type of loan you want. 

Do you need an FHA loan? Make sure the lender offers that type of mortgage. If you have an expensive home, you’ll want to make sure the lender offers jumbo loans.

You can also do some preliminary comparison of the loan terms, such as the annual percentage rate the lenders are advertising for their loans.

4. Request Quotes From Multiple Lenders

Once you’ve settled on a few lenders that you’re interested in working with, ask each of those lenders for a quote.

As part of providing the quote, the lender will probably ask you for some basic information, such as the loan amount that you’ll need, your annual income, the amount of home equity you’ve built, and so on.

Based on the information you provide, each lender will give you a sample mortgage loan offer. This will include things like the interest rate, fees, and monthly payment for the new mortgage they are offering.

One of the best ways to do this is to use an online loan broker or quote website like LendingTree. These sites take your information and search for lenders that work with people like you. You can get a quick look at offers from multiple lenders this way.

If you only get a couple of quotes from these sites, you can then move on to approaching lenders on your own.

Keep in mind that these sites make money by referring you to lenders, so they’ll give your contact info to lenders. You’re likely to start getting calls and emails after requesting quotes, so be prepared for that.

5. Compare Loan Estimate Terms

After you get loan estimates from each lender, sit down and compare them to find the best deal and to make sure that the terms of the new loans beat the terms of your current mortgage.

The important things to look at include:

Interest Rate.

The interest rate of the loan determines how quickly interest accrues. The lower the rate, the lower your monthly payment and the overall cost of the loan because less total interest will accrue over the life of the loan.

Mortgage Points

Mortgage points are paid upfront when you close on the loan. Points are a type of prepaid interest and each point you pay usually reduces the rate of your mortgage by 0.25%. Paying points can save you money in the long run if you plan to stay in your home for a long time.

Fees

You’ll have to pay various fees as part of getting a new mortgage, including underwriting fees, home appraisal fees, application fees, and origination fees. The higher the fees charged, the more expensive it will be to refinance your loan.

Loan Term

The term of a mortgage is the amount of time it will take to repay the loan if you follow the minimum payment schedule. The most common terms are 15 years and 30 years. A 30-year mortgage will have a lower monthly mortgage payment while a 15-year loan will cost less overall. Which you choose depends on your refinancing goals.

Interest Rate Type

When you get a mortgage, you can choose from an adjustable-rate loan or a fixed-rate loan. Fixed-rate mortgages have steady interest rates which offer predictability over the life of the loan. Adjustable-rate mortgages usually have lower initial interest rates, but rates could rise in the future, increasing the cost of the loan and its monthly payment.

Closing Costs 

Closing costs are all of the costs you have to pay to get your new mortgage, including things like mortgage points and fees. You want to make sure that you can afford any closing costs your refinance lenders will charge.


Mortgage Refinancing FAQs

Mortgages and refinancing can be complicated. Make sure you understand the process and why you might want to refinance before starting the process.

Should I Refinance My Mortgage?

Whether you should refinance your mortgage depends on your personal financial situation and your goals for refinancing.

You shouldn’t refinance just for the sake of refinancing. In most cases, refinancing only makes sense if it saves you money over the life of the loan, lowers your monthly payment, or helps you get out of debt faster. You’ll have to run the numbers to see if any of these situations apply to you.

How Much Money Can I Save by Refinancing?

Depending on the interest rate of your old loan and whether you’re paying PMI, refinancing could save you a lot of money.

Imagine you have a mortgage with a $250,000 balance and fifteen years remaining in its term. The interest rate of that loan is 4%. Your monthly payment before taxes will be $1,849 and you can expect to pay $332,820 over the remaining life of the loan.

Refinancing to a 15-year loan at 3% interest will drop your monthly payment by more than $100 to $1,726. Over the life of your new loan, you’ll spend $310,680, saving you $22,140 overall. If the closing costs and other fees are less than that amount, refinancing means saving money and adding flexibility to your monthly budget.

Does Refinancing Remove Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI)?

If you’re able to eliminate PMI from your loan payment, you can save even more. According to a study from the Urban Institute, the average loan that includes PMI had a principal balance of $289,700 in 2020. The Urban Institute reports that PMI averages between 0.22% and 2.25% of your loan’s value. Even if you’re on the lower end of that range and paying 1%, refinancing to eliminate PMI can save you almost $2,900 per year on an average loan.

For conventional loans, you can remove PMI by refinancing to a loan with a loan-to-value ratio of 80% or less, meaning you have at least 20% equity in your home. That equity can come from paying down your original loan’s balance or due to appreciation in your home’s value.

Unfortunately, mortgage insurance is difficult to avoid on some types of mortgages, includinge Federal Housing Administration loans. Depending on when the loan originated, mortgage insurance can be permanent or fixed for 11 years regardless of the equity you build. 

The only way to get out of these payments when you refinance is to refinance to a conventional loan. If you refinance to another FHA loan, you still have to pay for mortgage insurance.

Can I Refinance if I’m Underwater on My Mortgage?

If you wind up underwater on your mortgage, meaning you owe more than your home is worth, it can make refinancing more difficult. Many lenders require that you have some equity in your home before refinancing.

However, there are some lenders that will let you refinance, especially if you can put some extra cash toward the loan balance to get out of being underwater. 

In the past, the federal government has offered special refinance programs for borrowers with government-secured loans, such as the Enhanced Relief Refinance Mortgage program and HARP. Programs like these could appear once more in the future, though that’s not guaranteed.

Can I Refinance if I Have a Second Mortgage?

Some people wind up having multiple mortgages at one time. This can happen if you get a home equity loan or home equity line of credit on top of your current mortgage.

Refinancing with a second mortgage is possible, but can be more difficult than refinancing when you only have one loan.

One common solution is to refinance both loans into a single loan when you refinance. This has the added benefit of leaving you with just one monthly payment to make. It’s also relatively simple to refinance just your second mortgage.

Refinancing your primary loan is more complex. You need to work with both the new lender and the lender who provided your second mortgage and have the second mortgage lender agree to remain subordinate to the new loan. That means that the lender for your refinance loan has first priority to recover its losses in the event that you stop making payments.

If your second mortgage lender won’t agree to this, you won’t be able to refinance just your primary loan alone.

Can I Refinance More Than Once?

Yes, it’s possible to refinance your mortgage more than once. You can refinance as often makes sense for you financially so long as you can find willing lenders.

In reality, you don’t want to refinance your mortgage often. Refinancing incurs major costs, and the process can reduce your credit score in the short term, potentially impacting your ability to qualify for other loans or credit lines.

What Information Do I Need to Provide to a Mortgage Broker?

One option if you’re looking to refinance is to work with a mortgage broker. Mortgage brokers are middlemen who look at your financial situation and try to match you with lenders that will best help you meet your financial goals. This saves you the effort of having to research dozens of lenders to find the best deals.

Your mortgage broker will need much of the same information you’d need to provide to a lender, including:

  • Proof of Income. Bring your two most recent pay stubs and information about any other income you have so the broker can confirm your annual income, which can affect your ability to qualify for loans. 
  • A List of Bank and Loan Accounts. This shows your broker and would-be lenders how much cash you have on hand and your current liabilities. Lenders want to know that you have enough in the bank to deal with upfront refinancing costs. They also need to know your debt-to-income ratio, a key measure of your ability to afford your loan.
  • Details About Your Home and Current Mortgage. Bring your most recent mortgage statement so the broker can see your remaining balance, interest rate, monthly payment, and other details. 
  • Your Goals for Refinancing. Make sure to explain why you’re refinancing, such as to lower your monthly payment or to convert an adjustable-rate loan to a fixed-rate loan. This helps guide the broker as they look for the best loan for you.

Final Word

There are many reasons to refinance your mortgage, but most involve saving money — either by lowering your monthly payment or reducing the total cost of the loan. Understanding why you’re refinancing and knowing how to effectively compare loan offers from mortgage refinance lenders increases the odds that you’ll choose the loan that’s the best choice for your personal financial situation.

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TJ is a Boston-based writer who focuses on credit cards, credit, and bank accounts. When he’s not writing about all things personal finance, he enjoys cooking, esports, soccer, hockey, and games of the video and board varieties.

Source: moneycrashers.com

Fixed Expense vs Variable Expense

Budgeting is the best way to get a better handle on where your money is going — which can help you get a better handle on where you’d like to see your money go.

But before you dive into the nitty-gritty of each individual line item on your ledger, you first need to understand the difference between fixed expenses and variable expenses.

As their name suggests, fixed expenses are those that are fixed, or unchanging, each month, while variable expenses are the ones with which you can expect a little more wiggle room. However, it’s possible to make cuts on items in both the fixed and variable expense category to save money toward bigger financial goals, whether that’s an epic vacation or your eventual retirement.

Let’s take a closer look.

What Is a Fixed Expense?

Fixed expenses are those costs that you pay in the same amount each month — items like your rent or mortgage payment, insurance premiums, and your gym membership. It’s all the stuff whose amounts you know ahead of time, and which don’t change.

Fixed expenses tend to make up a large percentage of a monthly budget since housing costs, typically the largest part of a household budget, are generally fixed expenses. This means that fixed expenses present a great opportunity for saving large amounts of money on a recurring basis if you can find ways to reduce their costs, though cutting costs on fixed expenses may require bigger life changes, like moving to a different apartment — or even a different city.

Keep in mind, too, that not all fixed expenses are necessities — or big budget line items. For example, an online TV streaming service subscription, which is withdrawn in the same amount every month, is a fixed expense, but it’s also a want as opposed to a need. Subscription services can seem affordable until they start accumulating and perhaps become unaffordable.

Recommended: Are Monthly Subscriptions Ruining Your Budget?

What Is a Variable Expense?

Variable expenses, on the other hand, are those whose amounts can vary each month, depending on factors like your personal choices and behaviors as well as external circumstances like the weather.
For example, in areas with cold winters, electricity or gas bills are likely to increase during the winter months because it takes more energy to keep a house comfortably warm. Grocery costs are also variable expenses since the amount you spend on groceries can vary considerably depending on what kind of items you purchase and how much you eat.

You’ll notice, though, that both of these examples of variable costs are still necessary expenses — basic utility costs and food. The amount of money you spend on other nonessential line items, like fashion or restaurant meals, is also a variable expense. In either case, variable simply means that it’s an expense that fluctuates on a month-to-month basis, as opposed to a fixed-cost bill you expect to see in the same amount each month.

To review:

•   Fixed expenses are those that cost the same amount each month, like rent or mortgage payments, insurance premiums, and subscription services.

•   Variable expenses are those that fluctuate on a month-to-month basis, like groceries, utilities, restaurant meals, and movie theater tickets.

•   Both fixed and variable utilities can be either wants or needs — you can have fixed-expense wants, like a gym membership, and variable-expense needs, like groceries.

When budgeting, it’s possible to make cuts on both fixed and variable expenses.

Recommended: Grocery Shopping on a Budget

Benefits of Saving Money on Fixed Expenses

If you’re trying to find ways to stash some cash, finding places in your budget to make cuts is a big key. And while you can make cuts on both fixed and variable expenses, lowering your fixed expenses can pack a hefty punch, since these tend to be big line items — and since the savings automatically replicate themselves each month when that bill comes due again. (Even businesses calculate the ratio of their fixed expenses to their variable expense, for this reason, yielding a measure known as operating leverage.)

Think about it this way: if you quit your morning latte habit (a variable expense), you might save a grand total of $150 over the course of a month — not too shabby, considering its just coffee. But if you recruit a roommate or move to a less trendy neighborhood, you might slash your rent (a fixed expense) in half. Those are big savings, and savings you don’t have to think about once you’ve made the adjustment: they just automatically rack up each month.

Other ways to save money on your fixed expenses include refinancing your car (or other debt) to see if you can qualify for a lower payment… or foregoing a car entirely in favor of a bicycle if your commute allows it. Can you pare down on those multiple streaming subscriptions or hit the road for a run instead of patronizing a gym? Even small savings can add up over time when they’re consistent and effort-free — it’s like automatic savings.

Of course, orchestrating it in the first place does take effort (and sometimes considerable effort, at that — pretty much no one names moving as their favorite activity). The benefits you might reap thereafter can make it all worthwhile, though.

Saving Money on Variable Expenses

Of course, as valuable as it is to make cuts to fixed expenses, saving money on variable expenses is still useful — and depending on your habits, it could be fairly easy to make significant slashes. For example, by adjusting your grocery shopping behaviors and aiming at fresh, bulk ingredients over-packaged convenience foods, you might decrease your monthly food bill. You could even get really serious and spend a few hours each weekend scoping out the weekly flyer for sales.

If you have a spendy habit like eating out regularly or shopping for clothes frequently, it can also be possible to find places to make cuts in your variable expenses. You can also find frugal alternatives for your favorite spendy activities, whether that means DIYing your biweekly manicure to learning to whip up that gourmet pizza at home. (Or maybe you’ll find a way to save enough on fixed expenses that you won’t have to worry as much about these habits!)

The Takeaway

Fixed expenses are those costs that are in the same amount each month, whereas variable expenses can vary. Both can be trimmed if you’re trying to save money in your budget, but cutting from fixed expenses can yield bigger savings for less ongoing effort.

Great budgeting starts with a great money management platform — and a SoFi Money® cash management account can give you a bird’s-eye view that puts everything into perspective. You’ll also have access to the Vaults feature, which helps you set aside money for specific savings purposes, no matter which goals are the most important to you, all in one account.

Check out SoFi Money and how it can help you manage your financial goals.

Photo credit: iStock/LaylaBird


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The Cost of Living in Milwaukee

Milwaukee has so much to offer! It’s a coastal city (yep, beaches in the Midwest), is home to the largest music festival in the world and boasts some of the friendliest residents in the country.

Milwaukee is a thriving city where beer and sports are not only an important part of life — they’re part of the city’s heritage. The people who live here love to have a good time. So much so, in fact, that residents call Milwaukee the City of Festivals.

The population of this city is nearly 600,000, yet many who live here say it doesn’t feel like a big city. It feels like a small town where neighbors know each other and can’t wait to hang out.

The cost of living in Milwaukee is on par with the national average, coming in at only 0.3 percent cheaper. Over the past year, the cost of living has increased by 3.5 percent.

To get an idea of whether this city is truly affordable, it’s important to look at more than just the average rent in Milwaukee. You also need to consider the factors below. Once you do, you’ll feel confident knowing whether a move to Milwaukee is right for you.

Milwaukee housing

Milwaukee housing

Housing costs in Milwaukee

One of the top expenses you’ll have in life is housing costs, so this is something that can impact the cost of living in Milwaukee exponentially. Most experts recommend paying no more than 30 percent of your income on housing costs. However, a 2015 Harvard report found that 45 percent of households that earn $30,000 to $45,000 annually pay over 30 percent on housing.

How much you spend depends on how much you can afford. The average rent in Milwaukee is $1,621 — not the lowest in the nation but definitely not the highest (that honor goes to New York, with an average rental rate of almost $7,000 for a two-bedroom).

Of course, this is just an average, which means you can find apartments for rent in higher or lower cost brackets. For instance, if you found the apartment of your dreams in the Historic Third Ward, you’ll pay $2,821 on average. However, you can find more affordable rates in neighborhoods like Southpoint ($874), Timmerman West ($910) and Woodland Court ($946).

Average rent prices in cities near Milwaukee

On average, housing prices in Milwaukee are 3.9 percent higher than the national average. If this is something you can afford, great! However, if you find that you either don’t like living close to Downtown Milwaukee or can’t afford the higher rental rates, you might want to check out surrounding cities and suburbs. Here are a few to consider.

Home prices in Milwaukee

Another way to potentially save money is by purchasing a home instead of paying the average rent in Milwaukee. Home prices in the city currently hover around $180,000, an increase of 6.8 percent over 2020.

The housing market is somewhat competitive with some homes getting multiple offers and selling for 2 to 8 percent over list price. The average home stays on the market between 34 to 46 days.

If you put the recommended 20 percent down on your $180,000 dream home, your mortgage payment will be around $918 per month.

Milwaukee fish fry

Milwaukee fish fry

Food costs in Milwaukee

If you’re a foodie, you’ll be happy to know that your home city made the list of the top 50 restaurants in the country for foodies.

The restaurants in this city create meals that are to die for! You’ll find:

  • Brewery cuisine (How could you not? It’s Milwaukee after all!)
  • High-end gastronomic experiences
  • Laid-back barbeque
  • Italian markets
  • Pizza + fine dining Italian
  • Spanish and Portuguese cuisine

And the great thing about having someone else cook for you is that you’ll save a ton of time — especially on those days/nights when you’re exhausted, super busy or just don’t feel like putting forth the effort to cook.

It’s important to note, though, that eating out regularly can increase the cost of living in Milwaukee. That’s why many residents of this city do their best to cook at home more often. Grocery costs in the city are 0.9 percent higher than the national average, a price range that has increased 6.5 percent in the past year. Here’s an example of what you can expect to pay at a Milwaukee grocery store.

  • Ground beef: $4.63
  • Sausage: $3.78
  • Margarine: $0.91
  • Bananas: $0.71
  • Cooking oil: $5.57
  • Potato chips: $2.82
  • Coke: $2.00
  • Total: $20.42. The national average for the same items comes to $19.35.

Utility costs in Milwaukee

One area in which you’ll save a few bucks on the cost of living in Milwaukee is the cost of utilities. On average, these costs are approximately 3.8 percent lower, though this is a citywide increase of 1.2 percent over last year’s prices. While that’s not a huge cost savings, there are some things you can do to save money each month.

Bundle utilities like phone, internet and cable. Follow energy-saving tips like doing your laundry at night instead of during peak hours. Turn off any lights you’re not really using. Find more affordable utility service providers (many people overpay for phone and internet). Change your air filters regularly. Switch to energy-saving lightbulbs.

What can you expect to pay each month on utilities in Milwaukee? Here are a few estimates.

  • Total energy: $163.51
  • Water: Baseline = $25.40
  • Sewer: At least $28.28 per month

Waking in Milwaukee

Waking in Milwaukee

Transportation costs in Milwaukee

Another area that can increase your cost of living is transportation. In fact, for some people, these costs are so impactful that they can’t afford the average rent in Milwaukee.

On the whole, transportation costs are 4.2 percent lower than the U.S. average.

There are a few ways you can get around the city for work, errands and fun.

  • Own your own vehicle: Owning a vehicle gives you the freedom to come and go as you please. But with that freedom comes responsibility, like paying for insurance, fuel and vehicle maintenance. Currently, fuel prices are $2.75 per gallon (the national average is $2.76). A common maintenance cost (tire balancing) will run you around $47.04 ($5.36 cheaper than the U.S. average).
  • Take public transportation: The Milwaukee County Transit System has a fairly good transit score (53). The MCTS offers a one-way fare for $2 or an all-day pass for $4. You can purchase a 7-day pass for under $20 or a month-long pass for $72.
  • Walk/bike: The walkability and biking scores in Milwaukee are higher than average (70 and 69, respectively). There are some great walking paths around the city. Not only does the city have well-defined bike lanes throughout, but they also have a bike-share program. Bublr Bikes is a non-profit bike share program that charges $0.25 per minute, $24 for a 24-hour pass, as well as a 30-day and 100-day membership that allows you up to 60 minutes of riding time, plus a reduced rate of $3 for every additional 30-minute increment.

Healthcare costs in Milwaukee

One area that can dramatically increase your cost of living in Milwaukee is healthcare. The reason for this is two-fold.

First, everyone is so unique. Every single person’s medical needs differ. Because of this, it’s hard to determine an average healthcare cost for a particular city. What you end up paying might be drastically higher or lower than your neighbors, co-workers or even other family members.

Second, healthcare costs in Milwaukee tend to be higher than the U.S average by 12.5 percent, a 0.6 percent rise since last year. OTC medications (like a bottle of ibuprofen) cost around $8.89 (a little over a dollar cheaper than the U.S. average). Prescription medications are about 4.39 percent higher than the national average.

Here’s a breakdown of what you might pay for certain medical visits compared to others in the U.S.

  • Eye exam: $65.40 in Milwaukee; $105 – national average
  • Dental check-up: $102.80 in Milwaukee; $99.44 – national average
  • Annual doctor’s visit: $183 in Milwaukee; $112.81 – national average

Though it isn’t always easy to determine exactly how much you’ll pay each month or year toward healthcare costs, it’s wise to get a baseline idea. Doing so will give you a better idea of how much money you must put toward rental costs and whether you’re able to afford the average rent in Milwaukee or not.

Milwaukee beach

Milwaukee beach

Goods and services costs in Milwaukee

Once you’ve paid for the necessities of life (food, shelter), it’s time to look at how much you’ll spend on the non-essentials. These are things like dry cleaning, salon visits, plants, knick-knacks, furniture, toilet paper, make-up, pet care, etc.

The cost of miscellaneous items and services in Milwaukee is 3.8 percent lower than the U.S average. The amount you spend on these things will likely vary from month to month but getting an idea of the average you spend can help you stick to your budget and keep the cost of living in Milwaukee more affordable.

Some common items that fall into this category include:

  • Hair cut: $25
  • Yoga: $20.50
  • Movie: $11.59
  • Wine: $9.95
  • Beer: $8.32
  • Vet visit: $50.46
  • Total: $125.82. The total cost of the same list (according to the national average) is $117.23.

Taxes in Milwaukee

Another factor that can increase the cost of living in Milwaukee is the tax rates.

  • Income tax rate: The individual income tax rate (3.54 percent to 7.65 percent) varies depending on your income and marital status.
  • Property tax rate: The residential property tax rate in Milwaukee County is 2.53 percent. If you pay the median home rate of $180,000, you’ll owe $4,554 per year in property taxes.
  • Sales tax rate: The sales tax rate in Milwaukee is 5.5 percent. If you make a purchase worth $1,000, you’ll pay an additional $55 in sales tax. The breakdown: Wisconsin sales tax = 5 percent; Milwaukee County sales tax = 0.5 percent; Milwaukee (city) sales tax = 0 percent. Something else to consider when it comes to taxes is whether you work out of state. In some cases, you may have to file taxes in your work state, as well as your home state.

Thankfully, there’s a provision that helps keep workers’ tax rates low. It’s called reciprocal agreements. These are agreements between neighboring states that say you can work in that state without having to pay taxes to that state. Wisconsin has reciprocal agreements with:

  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Kentucky
  • Michigan

If you work in a state that doesn’t have a reciprocal agreement with Wisconsin, you may have to file taxes in both your home and work state. However, federal law prevents the taxation of the same income by two states. In this case, you’ll likely get credit for any taxes withheld by the state where you work.

How much do you need to earn to live in Milwaukee?

To determine whether you can afford the cost of living in Milwaukee, you need to look at a couple of factors.

First, how much you earn annually. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average Milwaukee resident earns $41,838 annually.

Next, we’ll calculate 30 percent of that amount, which is the maximum amount financial experts recommend paying each month in rent. Thirty percent of $41,838 is $12,551.40 annually, or $1,045.95 per month.

Finally, we’ll look at the average rent in Milwaukee, which is $1,621. This is over $575 the goal amount.

Can you afford that? Possibly, if you don’t have a lot to pay in the way of utilities, transportation, healthcare and taxes. Another way you can afford the average rent in Milwaukee is if you earn more than the median annual income.

To determine whether Milwaukee rental fees fit into your budget, check out our free rent calculator.

Understanding the cost of living in Milwaukee

The cost of living in Milwaukee is like that of many other cities in the U.S. It’s not overly expensive like Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago or New York. But it’s not the cheapest, either.

Nearly 600,000 people call Milwaukee home. If they’re able to make it, so can you! With some research and number crunching, you can determine whether a move to this city is right for you and your family. To help make the decision even easier, be sure to check out our rental listings. You can find apartments for rent in Milwaukee that fit your budget so you can live comfortably and thrive in this great city.

Cost of living information comes from The Council for Community and Economic Research.
Rent prices are based on a rolling weighted average from Apartment Guide and Rent.com’s multifamily rental property inventory of two-bedroom apartments as of August 2021. Our team uses a weighted average formula that more accurately represents price availability for each individual unit type and reduces the influence of seasonality on rent prices in specific markets.
The rent information included in this article is used for illustrative purposes only. The data contained herein do not constitute financial advice or a pricing guarantee for any apartment.

Source: rent.com

The Cost of Living in San Antonio

San Antonio is one of the best places to live in Texas. You’ll have access to an abundance of bars, restaurants, shopping and entertainment opportunities.

People who live in San Antonio say it’s Texas’ best-kept secret. And most of them would like to keep it that way! That doesn’t mean they’re not open to new neighbors, though. If you’re thinking of moving to The Alamo City, you’re in good company. On average, approximately 66 people move to the city every day.

With affordable real estate and lower than average rent, combined with the big city amenities and a small-town feel, it’s no wonder San Antonio is booming.

The cost of living in San Antonio is below the national average by 7.5 percent, making a move to this city an affordable option for many. To find out if San Antonio is right for you, consider the cost of living in the following categories.

San Antonio Riverwalk high rise

San Antonio Riverwalk high rise

Housing costs in San Antonio

The biggest part of your monthly budget is your rent. According to financial experts, the “rule of thumb” when it comes to renting is that it should make up no more than 30 percent of your monthly budget. However, according to a 2020 Harvard report, nearly 25 percent of renters spend over half their budget on rental fees.

What you decide to spend on rent is up to you and where you decide to live, which is why it’s smart to check out rental fees in various cities. You might be able to find the apartment of your dreams at an affordable rate (that doesn’t eat up half your income) in a city like San Antonio.

So, how does this city stack up? The average rent in San Antonio is 16.8 percent cheaper than the U.S. average. You can expect to pay about $1,103 per month, which is an 18.3 percent decrease from the previous year.

Of course, some neighborhoods are a bit pricier, like Downtown San Antonio. There you’ll pay a little less than $2,000 per month on rent.

Or, you might pay less if you move to a neighborhood like Woodlawn Hills, where the average rental fees are around $750 per month.

Average rent prices in cities near San Antonio

If you aren’t comfortable with the average rent in San Antonio or aren’t sure if this city is the right one for you, you still have plenty of options. Texas is full of awesome cities that have the amenities that will fit your needs — and at prices that fit your budget.

In addition to browsing through various neighborhoods in San Antonio, you can also research nearby cities, such as the following.

Home prices in San Antonio

Another option is to save up your money and put a down payment on a San Antonio home. Many people feel this is a better option than renting because you’re putting your money into something that’s going to appreciate and benefit you (and potentially other members of your family) instead of simply putting money into a landlord’s pocket.

The average price for a home in San Antonio is $279,000 — an amazing price considering houses in some cities like Los Angeles, CA or Manhattan, NY go for $920,000 and $1,170,000, respectively, on average. Even Dallas, TX has significantly higher housing prices (averaging nearly $400,000).

However, San Antonio is booming, which means the housing market is very competitive right now. On average, homes sell for between 1 and 5 percent higher than the asking price and sell within 11 to 18 days.

What about your mortgage payment? Depending on your down payment and the price of the home you’re interested in, you can expect to pay at least $1,188 per month, according to Redfin. This is higher than the average rent in San Antonio, so you’ll definitely have to weigh the pros and cons of renting vs. buying.

Tex Mex food in San Antonio

Tex Mex food in San Antonio

Food costs in San Antonio

Another category that can quickly and substantially increase the cost of living in San Antonio (or any city for that matter) is food costs, which fall into two categories: groceries and eating out.

Most people will tell you that eating out is more expensive than eating at home. But for a lot of people, eating out is a necessity at times due to their busy schedule, which contributes not only to a lack of time but also to exhaustion.

Thankfully, you have plenty of dining options in San Antonio. If you’re a fan of Bon Appétit magazine, then you’ll love their recommendations, like the 2M Smokehouse, which is where you’ll find the best barbeque in Texas. But there’s more to Texas cuisine than barbeque. You’ll also find:

  • Seafood
  • Vegetarian restaurants
  • Chinese
  • Japanese
  • Middle Eastern
  • Italian
  • Ethiopian
  • Jamaican

Just to name a few!

The average cost of a meal out is around $13, though that’s for budget-friendly options. If you choose to eat at a fine dining establishment or want to have your food delivered (with delivery fees and driver tips), expect to pay much more.

Eating at home

If you’re trying to save money, you can cook most (if not all) of your meals at home. Grocery costs in San Antonio are 10 percent cheaper than the national average.

Let’s say you want to make some fried chicken with a side of corn and a coke for a fast and easy, Southern comfort meal. Your grocery bill for that meal will be around $3.82. Other cities in the country will average a bill of about $4.45. It doesn’t seem like a huge difference but when you’re doing your weekly or monthly shopping, it will add up. And you’ll really be able to see the difference when you evaluate what you spent on food over the course of a year.

Utility costs in San Antonio

Utility costs in San Antonio are also lower than the national average by 11.3 percent. Utilities are one of the most important figures to factor into the cost of living in San Antonio. They can quickly and radically increase your costs each month, including the average rent in San Antonio.

The average monthly electricity/power bill in the U.S. is $161.20. In San Antonio, the average cost is $136.97.

Other utilities include:

San Antonio high way

San Antonio high way

Transportation costs in San Antonio

Another important feature of the cost of living in San Antonio is transportation. After all, you need to get to and from work and be able to run errands efficiently — and affordably — if possible.

Fortunately, transportation costs in San Antonio are 4.6 percent lower than the national average. These costs include:

  • Public transit: A one-way trip on the VIA Metropolitan Transit bus costs $1.30. You can purchase a 7-day pass for $12 or a month-long pass for $38.00. The Transit Score for San Antonio is 37.
  • Parking: The average parking rate in the city is $5.50 per hour or $16 for 24 hours.
  • Fuel: A gallon of gas is currently around $2.43, which is 12.7 percent cheaper than the national average and 59.54 percent cheaper than the price of gas in Sacramento, CA.
  • Vehicle maintenance: One of the most common maintenance fees is tire rotation and balancing. You’ll pay about $59.50 for this service in San Antonio, which is 12.7 percent higher than the U.S. average.

Another common way to get around a city is to walk or bike. While this is possible in San Antonio, the walkability and bike scores aren’t great. They are well-below average (38 and 45, respectively). However, San Antonio is trying to change that.

In addition to the mostly flat topography of the city, you’ll also have access to San Antonio B-Cycle, which is a bike-share program that has over 50 stations throughout the city. For a 30-minute ride, you can rent a bike for $3.75. Or you can purchase a monthly or annual membership for $22 per month or $100 per year.

Healthcare costs in San Antonio

Though this is an important category in which to figure out your unique cost of living in San Antonio, these prices are typically difficult to determine. The reason for this is because healthcare impacts every person differently.

Some people pay less because they’re single, healthy and have great insurance. Others pay more because they don’t have insurance. And others may pay more even if they have insurance because they must pay for the coverage of a spouse/partner and dependents and/or have chronic health conditions that require frequent trips to the doctor or regular prescription medications.

Overall, the cost of healthcare in San Antonio is 6 percent lower than the national average. If you make an appointment for your annual physical, you’ll pay $116 for that visit. In other cities in the U.S., you’ll pay around $112.81. A trip to the dentist will cost $91.33 before insurance, whereas residents of other cities will pay approximately $99.44.

Over-the-counter drugs and prescription medications range from 4.27 percent to 6.35 percent cheaper, respectively.

San Antonio Riverwalk

San Antonio Riverwalk

Goods and services costs in San Antonio

Non-essential goods and services can radically increase the cost of living in San Antonio if you’re not careful. We don’t always pay attention to these costs because, while we purchase or invest in them regularly, most aren’t a monthly expense like rent or food.

Getting a baseline idea of how much you spend each month on these items can give you a good idea of whether you can afford the average rent in San Antonio.

On average, the cost of goods and services in San Antonio is 1 percent higher than the national average. For the most part, that’s not a huge price hike but if you’re like most people, you’ll want to look for a deal to save a few bucks each month.

Here are a few price comparisons.

  • Haircut: $27 in San Antonio; $20 U.S. average
  • Yoga class: $18.20 in San Antonio; $15 national average
  • Visit the salon: $51.70 in San Antonio; $38.64 U.S. average
  • A trip to the movies: $11.88 in San Antonio; $11.12 national average
  • Veterinary check-up: $50.64 in San Antonio; $52.45 U.S. average

Taxes in San Antonio

One of the perks of living in San Antonio is that there’s no state income tax. However, you’ll still have to pay sales and property taxes, and these can end up being relatively higher than average.

If you choose to purchase a home in San Antonio for the median price ($279,000), you’ll pay around $5,496 each year in residential property taxes. The property tax rate is 1.970 percent and can exponentially increase the cost of living in San Antonio, depending on your mortgage rate and the price of your home.

The sales tax rate in San Antonio is 8.25 percent, 6.25 percent of which goes to the state of Texas. If you make a $1,000 purchase, you’ll end up paying an additional $82.50 in taxes.

How much do you need to earn to live in San Antonio?

How much you need to earn depends on the total cost of living in San Antonio, most of which you’ll likely allocate to your rental or mortgage fees. Many financial experts recommend spending no more than 30 percent on this expense.

If you’re paying the average rent in San Antonio, you’ll pay $13,236 per year toward rent. If that makes up 30 percent of your budget, you’ll need to make an additional $30,884 to live comfortably. That means your total annual income needs to amount to $44,120.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average income in San Antonio is $52,455. If you make that, congratulations! You’ll be able to afford the average rent in San Antonio with a little extra leftover for an emergency fund, investments or other expenses that may increase your cost of living in San Antonio.

If you’re not sure whether you can afford to live in this fine Texas city, check out our free rental calculator to get a better idea of what you can afford.

Understanding the cost of living in San Antonio

The prospect of moving to a new city is a daunting one because there are so many unknown variables. But when you take the time to understand all the factors involved in figuring out the total cost of living in San Antonio, you’ll feel more confident about your decision to move to a new city. You’ll know that such a move is within budget, which will allow you to not only live comfortably in San Antonio but to thrive in your new hometown.

When you’re ready to make the move, make sure to check out our listings to find apartments for rent in San Antonio that are sure to make you feel at home.

Cost of living information comes from The Council for Community and Economic Research.
Rent prices are based on a rolling weighted average from Apartment Guide and Rent.com’s multifamily rental property inventory of two-bedroom apartments as of August 2021. Our team uses a weighted average formula that more accurately represents price availability for each individual unit type and reduces the influence of seasonality on rent prices in specific markets.
The rent information included in this article is used for illustrative purposes only. The data contained herein do not constitute financial advice or a pricing guarantee for any apartment.

Source: rent.com

The Cost of Living in Nashville

With a nickname like Music City, it’s no wonder why people flock to Nashville. But this city has so much more to offer its residents, including amazing eateries, beautiful scenery and friendly neighbors.

Nashville is one of the most beautiful cities in the country. It’s no wonder people flock to move here! One resident interviewed said that the vibe is cool, the weather is great and the economy is almost recession-proof. It’s estimated that approximately 82 people move to this city every day.

Other cities with these features — particularly the strong job market — tend to see higher costs of living. For instance, Silicon Valley is the tech capital of the world. But even people working in that industry and earning six figures per year are struggling to make ends meet due to the high housing costs.

This isn’t the case for many of the residents in this Tennessee town. The cost of living in Nashville is lower than the national average by 3.1 percent (up 0.9 percent in the last year).

Does Nashville sound like your dream city? If so, you’ll need to find out whether the cost of living here meshes with your budget. In addition to determining the average rent in Nashville, you’ll also need to delve into the following cost categories to see if making the move to Music City is right for you.

High-rise building in Nashville, TN

High-rise building in Nashville, TN

Housing costs in Nashville

Overall, the cost of housing in Nashville is 5 percent less than the U.S. average. This is great news since rental fees are the largest monthly expense in most people’s budgets.

The average rent in Nashville is $2,614, which is 24.7 percent higher than the previous year. However, if you’re intent on living in Nashville but the $2,614 price seems a bit out of budget, there’s good news! You can find cheaper rental costs in neighborhoods within and surrounding Nashville.

Remember: the $2,614 price is an average made up of much higher and lower rental rates. In Downtown Nashville and Midtown, for example, you’ll pay around $3,367 each month. On the other hand, in neighborhoods like West Nashville and Whitebridge, you can pay as low as $899 per month for a two-bedroom apartment.

Rental prices depend on multiple factors including:

Average rent prices in cities near Nashville

Of course, you don’t have to live in the center of Nashville to enjoy the lifestyle. There are several cities nearby (some within a 30–40-minute drive) that are just as lovely, have great rental properties and boast the same amenities. And many of them have lower average rental fees. Here are just a few.

Home prices in Nashville

Purchasing your own home is another option that can potentially bring down your monthly housing costs in Nashville.

According to Redfin, the average monthly mortgage payment is $1,334. The median home price is $388,000, which is nearly 16 percent higher than 2020. The housing market is somewhat competitive but not hot. Homes in popular neighborhoods are hotter-than-average and typically sell for 6 percent higher than the asking price. The average home in Nashville generally sells for 2 percent more than the homeowner’s asking price.

Nashville hot chicken

Nashville hot chicken

Food costs in Nashville

Another perk of living in Nashville: food costs are 3.4 percent cheaper than the national average. This can significantly lower the cost of living in Nashville over the year and make it easier to pay the average rent in Nashville or surrounding areas.

Grocery costs vary. If you’re in a rush and don’t have time to cook, a frozen dinner costs around $2.30. Add in a Coke for another $1.99 and you have a quick meal for $4.29. Nationally, the same meal averages $4.48.

If you have time to cook and want to make a steak dinner and salad, you’ll pay $13.15 for the steak, $3.08 for potatoes and $1.45 for lettuce to make a salad, for a total of $17.68. Nationally, you’ll pay $17.02 for the same meal.

Another reason to move to Nashville is the amazing restaurants — it’s pretty much a foodie’s dream. You’ll find Parisian-inspired cafés, restaurants devoted to hot wings, Tex-Mex and more. If you’re in the mood for international cuisine, Nashville offers Vietnamese, Turkish, Ethiopian, Lebanese, Indian and Caribbean just to name a few.

How much you spend eating out depends on the type of restaurant you visit. A burger and fries can range from a few bucks to $24 if you choose to indulge in a gourmet burger at a fine dining establishment.

Utility costs in Nashville

On average, utilities in Nashville are 10.4 percent less than other cities in the U.S. That’s a huge bonus when it comes to the cost of living in Nashville. Utility prices can radically change the cost of living and the average rent in Nashville, so the fact that prices are lower in this area is a definite perk.

Electricity costs average $93.54 per month. Add in other energy fees and you might pay as much as $138.62 per month in Nashville. The U.S. average ranges from $95.88 per month for electricity alone to $161.20 when you factor in other energy fees.

Other utilities that factor into the cost of living in Nashville are:

  • Internet: Can range from $20 to $70 per month depending on your provider
  • Cellphone: Costs range from $6 to $300 per month depending on your provider and plan specifications (minutes, data, etc.)
  • Landline: Landline fees range from $12 to over $50
  • Cable: Depending on your provider, costs can range from $25 per month to $65 per month

Bike rentals in Nashville, TN

Bike rentals in Nashville, TN

Transportation costs in Nashville

National transportation costs average 3.5 percent higher than those in Nashville. This cost is important to factor into the cost of living in Nashville because it can play an important role in where you decide to move.

Some neighborhoods are absolutely lovely and have all the amenities you want. But the average rent in these Nashville neighborhoods is typically higher. If you have to pay transportation costs, like vehicle maintenance, fuel and parking fees, your costs can rise significantly. Upon learning how much it will cost to travel between home and work — as well as to run errands — you may decide to move to a neighborhood that’s closer to work or has fewer non-essential amenities.

Currently, gas prices in Nashville are $2.63 per gallon. The national average is $2.76, though in some parts of the country the prices are exponentially more, like in Sacramento, CA, which has the highest gas prices in the country (an average of $4.49 per gallon).

Car maintenance fees, like tire balancing and rotating, cost an average of $52.96 in Nashville and $52.40 nationally. Parking in a lot or garage in Nashville averages about $5 per hour.

Public Transportation, Walkability and Biking in Nashville

The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) is Nashville’s bus system, which has over 50 routes throughout the city. The cost of a one-way fare is $2. An all-day pass is $4. They also provide multi-day passes that allow for unlimited rides. Prices range from $20 for a 7-day pass to $65 for a 31-day pass.

Biking and walkability scores in Nashville are well below average (41 and 37, respectively). It’s a car-dependent city, though there are some well-defined bike lanes. The best Nashville neighborhoods for walking and biking are Downtown Nashville, East End and Historic Edgefield.

Healthcare costs in Nashville

It’s difficult to provide an accurate estimate of healthcare costs in a particular city simply because healthcare is such a unique experience. The needs vary from one person to the next. Some people must factor in multiple doctors visits per year into the total cost of living in Nashville because they’re responsible for their healthcare costs, as well as those of other family members or dependents. Others are fortunate enough to have great genes and rarely get sick or never get so much as a headache. In these cases, healthcare costs are significantly less.

On average, healthcare costs in Nashville are 5.3 percent cheaper than nationally. A trip to a Nashville doctor costs around $105, while in other cities the cost is approximately $112.81. A dental check-up in Nashville can cost $99.45, while the national average is $99.44.

Medication costs vary as well with over-the-counter medications (like ibuprofen) averaging about 6.6 percent cheaper and prescription costs averaging 2.6 percent lower costs.

Banjo player in Nashville, TN

Banjo player in Nashville, TN

Goods and services costs in Nashville

Goods and services are so-called non-essentials, though we often invest in them with such regularity that they feel essential. In this category, you’ll find services like going to the barber or salon or going out to the movies and getting a beer with friends.

Other services include dry cleaning, which averages $15.19 in Nashville and $13.39 nationally. If you want to get a burger and beer with friends, you’ll pay approximately $14.61 per person in Nashville. The national average for this type of evening comes to $14.38.

What if your pet needs to see the vet? Nashville vets average $49.67 for a check-up, while around the country the price is around $52.45.

Overall, goods and services in Nashville are 0.5 percent higher than the national average.

Taxes in Nashville

Nashville has an above-average sales tax rate. Many cities/states don’t charge sales tax. Others average around 8.25 percent. The highest sales tax rate in the country is in Tacoma, WA (10.3 percent). Sales tax in Nashville is 9.25 percent.

The residential property tax rate in Nashville is 0.820 percent. If you purchase a home for $388,000, you can anticipate your cost of living in Nashville will increase by $3,182 per year due to property taxes.

How much do you need to earn to live in Nashville?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average annual income in Nashville is $59,828. If you make that much and only want to spend 30 percent of your income on rent (as many experts recommend), you’d need to find an apartment for rent in Nashville that costs approximately $1,495.70. This is $1,118.30 less than the average rent in Nashville.

If you make more than the average income, you may well afford the higher cost of living in Nashville. However, if you earn the average income or below, you might want to consider living in a suburb of Nashville, a more affordable neighborhood within the city or in another Tennessee city altogether.

To see if Nashville is right for you (as far as your rental budget goes), make sure to check out our free rental calculator.

Understanding the cost of living in Nashville

The thriving music industry isn’t the only thing that makes people want to move to Nashville. The low unemployment rate and healthy job market make it a safe bet for those looking to settle down in a new city. You’ll also find that it’s one of the more affordable large cities in the country, compared to cities with similar population rates like Denver and Portland.

If Nashville seems like an ideal place to settle down, make sure to check our website to find apartments for rent in Nashville. With our specialized filter, you’ll find a beautiful apartment or rental that fits your budget.

Cost of living information comes from The Council for Community and Economic Research.
Rent prices are based on a rolling weighted average from Apartment Guide and Rent.com’s multifamily rental property inventory of two-bedroom apartments as of August 2021. Our team uses a weighted average formula that more accurately represents price availability for each individual unit type and reduces the influence of seasonality on rent prices in specific markets.
The rent information included in this article is used for illustrative purposes only. The data contained herein do not constitute financial advice or a pricing guarantee for any apartment.

Source: rent.com

Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI) vs. Mortgage Insurance Premium (MIP)

PMI or MIP may be the ticket to homeownership if you have a down payment of less than 20%, but mortgage insurance adds up over the years and is something to pay attention to.

Private mortgage insurance may be required for conventional home loans, those not backed by the government. Mortgage insurance premium is always a part of FHA-insured loans, at least for years.

Each is intended to protect lenders against losses if borrowers default.

What Is Mortgage Insurance Premium?

Borrowers pay MIP if they’re securing a loan backed by the Federal Housing Administration, no matter the down payment amount or loan term.

MIP runs for the loan’s full term or 11 years. There’s a one-time upfront premium of 1.75% of the base loan amount, which can be rolled into the loan, and an annual premium divided by 12 that is part of the monthly mortgage payment.

A key reason people choose FHA loans is the ability to put down as little as 3.5%.

Additionally, if your heart pounds with excitement when you think about buying a fixer-upper and making it beautiful and functional again, FHA offers the FHA 203(k) home loan for that — something that many lenders won’t do, especially if the home isn’t in good enough shape to be lived in.

With an FHA 203(k) loan, a single source of funding, the interest rate may be slightly higher than other mortgage rates, and the loan can require more coordination. It makes sense to choose contractors to rehab the home who are familiar with the program’s requirements.

How Much Is MIP on an FHA Loan?

The ongoing annual MIP of 0.45% to 1.05% is divided by 12 and added to your monthly mortgage payment. What you’ll pay depends on your loan-to-value (LTV) ratio (think: down payment) and length of the loan.

Taking out an FHA loan for the common 30 years, or anything greater than 15 years, will result in the following rates for 2021 (measured in basis points, or bps):

Base Loan Amount LTV Annual MIP
≤ $625,500 ≤ 95% 80 bps (0.80%)
≤ $625,500 > 95% 85 bps (0.85%)
> $625,500 ≤ 95% 100 bps (1%)
> $625,500 > 95% 105 bps (1.05%)

Here’s an example: Let’s say you borrow less than or equal to $625,500 and have a down payment of 5% or more. You’ll pay an annual MIP of 0.80%. On a home loan of $300,000, that’s $2,400 per year, or $200 per month. (0.0080 x 300,000 = 2,400, divided by 12.)

Some homeowners can pay off their loans quicker so they choose a shorter term, such as 15 years. As a result, they can take advantage of lower MIP, like this:

Base Loan Amount LTV Annual MIP
≤ $625,500 ≤ 90% 45 bps (0.45%)
≤ $625,500 > 95% 70 bps (0.70%)
> $625,500 ≤ 78% 45 bps (0.45%)
> $625,500 78.01% – 90% 70 bps (0.70%)
> $625,500 > 90% 95 bps (0.95%)

So if you were to borrow less than or equal to $625,500 and put down at least 10%, you’d pay an annual MIP of 0.45%. On a $300,000 home loan, that’s $1,250 a year, or $112.50 a month.

Can You Get Rid of MIP?

Maybe.

If you took out an FHA loan before June 3, 2013, you may be able to cancel MIP if you have 22% equity in your home and have made all payments on time. (FHA lenders do not automatically cancel your MIP once you reach that home equity threshold. You’ll need to ask.)

If you purchased or refinanced a home with an FHA loan on or after June 3, 2013, and your down payment was less than 10%, MIP will last for the entire loan term.

If you put down 10% or more, you’ll pay MIP for 11 years.

Here’s a chart that sums it up. For loans with FHA case numbers assigned on or after June 3, 2013, FHA will collect the annual MIP as follows:

Term LTV Previous New
≤ 15 years ≤ 78% No Annual MIP 11 Years
≤ 15 years 78.01% to 90% Canceled at 78% LTV 11 Years
≤ 15 years > 90% Loan Term Loan Term
> 15 years ≤ 78% 5 Years 11 Years
> 15 years 78.01% to 90% Canceled at 78% LTV and 5 Years 11 Years
> 15 years > 90% Canceled at 78% LTV and 5 Years Loan Term

Put as little as 5% down on a mortgage
with SoFi Home Loans.

One way to get rid of MIP is to refinance the FHA loan into a conventional loan with a private lender. Many FHA homeowners have enough equity to refi into a conventional loan and give mortgage insurance the heave-ho.

What Is Private Mortgage Insurance?

PMI is typically required when you’re putting less than 20% down on a conventional conforming loan. Most conventional mortgages are “conforming,” which means they meet the requirements to be sold to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.

One kind of nonconforming loan, the jumbo loan, which starts at over half a million for a single-family home, does not always require PMI.

Usually homeowners choose to pay PMI monthly, rather than annually, and it is included in monthly mortgage payments. A few may opt for lender-paid mortgage insurance, but for that convenience a homebuyer will usually pay a slightly higher interest rate.

Although PMI adds costs, it can allow you to qualify for a loan that you otherwise might not. And it can help you to buy a house without putting 20% down. In fact, 2 million homebuyers used PMI in 2020 to buy a home, a 53% increase from 2019, according to U.S. Mortgage Insurers.

How Much Does PMI Cost?

PMI varies but often is 0.5% to 1% of the total loan amount annually. The premium amount depends on the type of mortgage you get, LTV, your credit score, and more. It also depends on the amount of PMI that your loan program or lender requires.

According to a 2021 report from the Urban Institute, PMI is more economical than FHA loans for borrowers with a FICO score of 720 or above and who put 3.5% down.

The report also says PMI is more economical for:

•   Borrowers with a FICO score of 700 and above who put 5% down

•   Borrowers with a FICO score of 680 and above who put 10% down

•   Borrowers with a FICO score of 620 and above who put 15% down

•   Borrowers with 78% LTV, since it cancels

When Can You Stop Paying PMI?

Buying a home may require you to pay a PMI premium, but there are four methods available to stop paying it.

First, there is a legal end to PMI. Under the Homeowners Protection Act, also known as the PMI Cancellation Act, your lender is required to cancel PMI automatically once your mortgage balance is at 78% of the home’s original value. “Original value” generally means either the contract sales price or the appraised value of your home at the time you purchased it, whichever is lower (or, if you have refinanced, the appraised value at the time you refinanced). Which figure is used for original value can vary by state.

Second, you can reappraise your home, which will likely result in a new value. Thus, you can ask your servicer to cancel PMI based on your built equity and the current value. Owners of homes that appreciated, either over time or thanks to home improvements, may benefit from this. You may need to be proactive with your lender and meet specific eligibility requirements to help make that happen.

Third, you may be able to refinance your mortgage. If you have at least 20% equity, you can possibly qualify for a conventional loan without the need for PMI.

Finally, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau notes another way in which PMI can be canceled: If you’re current on your payments and you’ve reached the halfway point of the loan’s schedule, even if your mortgage balance hasn’t yet reached 78% of the home’s original value.

What About Refinancing?

If you have a mortgage that includes PMI or MIP and your property value has increased significantly, one option to consider is refinancing.

Some borrowers may find that they are now able to qualify for a conventional home loan without mortgage insurance.

Refinancing holds appeal because of the possibility of locking in a better rate and reducing your monthly payment. Equity-rich homeowners sometimes like a cash-out refinance.

But as with your original mortgage, you’ll face closing costs if you refinance.

What about a “no cost refinance” you might see advertised? You’ll either add the closing costs to the principal or get an increased interest rate.

The Takeaway

Glass half-full: Private mortgage insurance and mortgage insurance premium open the door to homeownership to many who otherwise could not buy a property. Glass half-empty: PMI and MIP can really add up.

If you’re in the market for a home loan, know that SoFi offers mortgages with competitive rates as well as refinancing.

Find your rate in just two minutes.


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Source: sofi.com

Our Best Value Tech Holiday Gifts for 2021 (Plus the Best, Period)

Yes, the 2021 edition is arriving a little earlier than usual, but there’s a reason for that. The supply chain disruption, chip shortages, and transportation woes that have been so disruptive over the past year continue. That means popular products may be more difficult to find than usual, and retailers are warning that some may quickly sell out when holiday shopping kicks off.

To put that in perspective, a full year after launch, many gamers are still struggling to get their hands on a PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X game console.

So this is your head start. The gift guide is divided into two sections. The first is tech gifts that offer great value. They have an excellent combination of performance, features, and quality at a compelling price point. The second section is for tech products that stand out and offer more of a wow factor. They still deliver on value, but they’re higher up the price scale. I have had hands-on experience with virtually all of these products and published reviews for the majority of them, so you can count on each of these being much more than a pretty picture.

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Best Value in Chromebooks: Lenovo Chromebook Duet 10.1-inch 2-in-1

photo of Lenovo Chromebook Duet 10.1-inch 2-in-1photo of Lenovo Chromebook Duet 10.1-inch 2-in-1

Chromebooks were already popular with students, but two school years where remote and hybrid learning have been a frequent reality has made them indispensable for many families.

The Lenovo Chromebook Duet has wowed us since its 2020 debut. It’s a 2-in-1 with a detachable display so it can be used as a tablet, which is ideal for running Android apps or reading. Unlike many companies, Lenovo includes the magnetically connecting keyboard in the box. At under $300, you’re not going to find a fire-breathing processor, extra RAM or a lot of storage. In this case it’s a MediaTek Helio P60T 8-core CPU, 4GB or RAM, and 64GB of eMMC storage.

However, in a Chromebook, that does the job. When I reviewed the Chromebook Duet, I could easily have a dozen Chrome tabs open without slowdown. It’s equipped with a built-in webcam for video conferencing. I was really impressed by Lenovo’s inclusion of a 1080p IPS touchscreen display (many entry level Chromebooks still have 720p displays), and the 10 hours of battery life I averaged.

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Best Value in Gaming Laptops: Acer Nitro 5 (AN515-55-53E5)

Photo of Acer Nitro 5Photo of Acer Nitro 5

Gaming was already big, but in the pandemic, popularity soared. And then kept growing. Online PC gaming platform Steam just keeps breaking its own record for concurrent users. Gaming laptops have been incredibly popular because they allow PC gaming from wherever you can carve out the space to sit down, and they can do double-duty for school. But to play PC games, you really do need a gaming laptop, though — a standard computer lacks the graphics processing unit (GPU) to be able to handle popular triple-A games. 

You can actually get a pretty capable gaming laptop for well under $1,000. Acer’s Nitro 5 series has been an affordable gaming laptop leader for years. There are dozens of models to choose from, but this year’s crop includes the Nitro 5 (AN515-55-53E5).

For $799, you get a 10th generation Intel Core i5 processor, Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 3050 GPU capable of real-time ray tracing, a 15.6-inch 1080p display with a 144Hz refresh rate, Wi-Fi 6, and ultra-fast NVMe storage.

RAM and storage are both on the low end but usable (8GB and 256GB respectively), but can be easily and inexpensively upgraded at any time thanks to free slots.

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Best Value in Laptops: Apple M1 MacBook Air

Photo of Apple M1 MacBook Air Photo of Apple M1 MacBook Air

Once again, the M1 MacBook Air tops our list as the best value in laptops. We’re expecting a new version in 2022, but that one is undoubtedly going to go a little more upscale.

The current M1 MacBook Air — released last November — is a powerful performer thanks to Apple’s custom-designed M1 CPU. It features a silent, fanless design, a premium machined aluminum enclosure (in gold, silver or space gray), a very nice 13.3-inch Liquid Retina display, and battery life of up to 18 hours. It runs macOS instead of Windows, but there are macOS or cloud versions of most popular applications including Microsoft Office, so that shouldn’t be a big issue for most users.

With a starting price of $999 ($899 if you qualify for educational pricing), there’s no better value to be found in a laptop.

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Best Value in Smart Speaker: Google Nest Hub (2nd Gen)

Photo of Google Nest HubPhoto of Google Nest Hub

The pandemic has made connected digital photo frames popular as a way to create a digital connection with people less comfortable with laptops, tablets or similar equipment. This year’s suggestion is the second-generation Google Nest Hub.

This device is truly a great value. Priced at $99.99, it’s a smart speaker with a built-in 7-inch touchscreen. Use it to play music, stream videos, voice control smart home devices, and take video calls. And when not doing all that, the display can double as a digital photo frame as well, playing a slide show of your favorite snaps from Google Photos.

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Best Value in TVs: TCL 6-Series 4K Roku TV

Photo of tvPhoto of tv

Last year, the TCL 4-Series 4K Roku TV made this list as the best value in TVs, with a $229.99 starting price. This year, TCL is on the list again (the company is on a roll), but with the 6-Series, which has a $949.99 starting price.

Why the big price difference, and should you pay it?

First, sky-high demand for TVs combined with parts shortages and higher shipping costs have pushed prices considerably higher for all TVs this year. The TCL model that went for $229.99 last year is priced at $349.99 this year. That was also a 43-inch TV, where the smallest 6-Series is a 55-inch model ($499.99 for that size in the 4-Series).

The TCL 6-Series is equipped with advanced technology including a quantum dot display and a 120Hz refresh rate. It supports features like Dolby Atmos surround sound and Dolby Vision HDR. It delivers an excellent viewing experience and with its THX certified game mode, it is consistently rated as one of the best TVs for gaming with the new Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X game consoles. It’s a tremendous value in a TV and well worth the higher price tag — which is still well below the competition.

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Best Value in Fitness Tracker: Fitbit Charge 5

Photo of Fitbit Charge 5Photo of Fitbit Charge 5

Smart watches like the Apple Watch continue to gain popularity, but the reality is that many people who buy these are primarily using them for their health and fitness-tracking capabilities, and those you can get for less.

The Fitbit Charge 5 is an attractive-looking fitness tracker, with an aluminum case (in a choice of colors), swappable bands, a vibrant, always-on AMOLED touchscreen display, built-in GPS, and seven-day battery life. It offers a full array of health and fitness tracking capabilities including a heart rate sensor, ECG, oxygen saturation (SpO2) levels, breathing rate, and sleep monitoring.

It can also show notifications from an iPhone or Android smartphone.

If you’re shopping for someone who wants to be on top of all aspects of their health and fitness, the Fitbit Charge 5 is a great value at $100 less than Apple’s entry-level Apple Watch SE.

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Best Value in ANC Wireless Headphones: PuroPro Hybrid ANC Volume Limited Headphones

Photo illustration of PuroPro HeadphonesPhoto illustration of PuroPro Headphones

Wireless headphones are always a popular gift. The latest must-have feature — thanks to the trend working from home trend — is active noise cancellation (ANC). You can spend a lot of money on a pair of over-ear headphones that offer wireless connectivity and ANC, but you don’t need to. These will handle your neighbor’s leaf blower just fine.

In testing, I found the PuroPro Hybrid ANC wireless headphones deliver on the noise cancellation front, with two levels of ANC. They are comfortable and modern-looking, and offer an enjoyable music listening experience with plenty of energy. It’s on a level comparable with more expensive offerings. But there’s a twist. These headphones have a built in volume limiter to prevent hearing damage, making them ideal for those who habitually crank their music to 11. Odds are, they’ll never even notice.

PuroPro headphones fold compactly for carrying and come with a hardshell carrying case. They ship in a unique wooden box instead of cardboard, making for an attractive gift you won’t even need to wrap. 

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Best Value in Wireless Earbuds: 1More ComfoBuds Pro Aura Blue

Photo of 1More ComfoBudsPhoto of 1More ComfoBuds

True wireless earbuds make a great gift, and as with headphones, active noise cancellation is the latest must-have feature. The default when it comes to earbuds are Apple’s incredibly popular AirPods. If you want ANC, that means moving up to the $249 AirPods Pro.

However, at less than half that price, the 1More ComfoBuds Pro Aura Blue wireless earbuds are a much better value.

They are designed to be extremely comfortable (hence the name) and music sounds great thanks to 13.4 mm titanium composite dynamic drivers and custom tuning. You can customize the sound with 22 pre-set EQ settings. Six microphones support voice calls and multiple ANC modes, including pass-through (which basically means amplifying outside sounds so you can hear nearby voices or warning noises like car horns over top of the music). The stems are equipped with customizable touch control. They have a unique and very attractive metallic blue paint job and tiny LED “firefly” indicator lights on the tips. Sweat and rain are no problem with IPX4 water resistance.

ComfoBuds Pro also beat the AirPods Pro when it comes to battery life, with up to six hours per charge with ANC on and eight hours with ANC off.

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Best Value In Kids’ Tablets: Amazon Fire HD Kids Tablets

Photo of Amazon Fire Kids ProPhoto of Amazon Fire Kids Pro

Tablets make great gifts for kids. The devices let them stream their favorite videos, play games, read, listen to music, snap photos, and more. A tablet is entertainment that can be used anywhere, including in the car during road trips.

But: Tablets can be expensive, they’re fragile, and security can be a problem. Apple’s iPad is the go-to tablet, but it starts at $329. The smaller iPad mini that’s a more kid-friendly size costs even more with a $499 starting price.

Amazon has a proven solution for parents. It has a series of Fire tablets made specifically for kids. These include models starting at 7 inches, with features like a protective case, parental controls, a one-year subscription to Amazon Kids+ content, access to Amazon’s app store, support for video calls, and free replacement for two years if the tablet is broken.

Prices start at $99.99 for the 7-inch Fire 7 Kids Pro and range to $199.99 for the 10-inch Fire HD Pro Kids tablet. Amazon even offers discounts on multiples if you’re shopping for more than one kid. These do tend to sell out frequently, so keep checking back for stock.

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Best Value in Portable Power Banks: Mophie Powerstation Wireless XL With PD

Photo of Mophie Powerstation Wireless XL WPhoto of Mophie Powerstation Wireless XL W

Everyone can use a portable power bank. With so many of our devices being battery-powered, running out of charge is a constant risk. If it’s not your smartphone, it’s a tablet or wireless earbuds. Having a portable power bank handy in a purse, backpack, or glove compartment means you can easily charge these devices on demand and on the move, without clinging to an AC outlet.

I’ve always been a fan of Mophie products. The company has been making battery packs for smartphones and mobile devices for years. They know what works. My current pick among Mophie’s offerings is the Powerstation Wireless XL with PD.

This portable power bank is on the large size for a portable (it’s just over 5 inches long and weighs almost 8 ounces), but it packs a big 10,000mAh battery. That’s enough to charge most smartphones twice. Its top is a Qi wireless charger for convenience, and it has both USB Type-A and USB-C output ports. So you can charge just about anything, and charge multiple devices simultaneously. It’s also covered with fabric for a premium touch.

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Best Portable Gaming System: Nintendo Switch OLED Model

Photo of Nintendo Switch Photo of Nintendo Switch

The first gift idea among the “best of” pack is a new version of the must-have portable game system for the past several years. There are now hundreds of games in the Nintendo Switch library, including best-sellers like Animal Crossing: New Horizons and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

The Nintendo Switch is a mobile gamer’s dream. The new Switch OLED Model adds $50 to the price of the original, but addresses that system’s primary weakness with a vibrant new OLED display. Colors pop like never before and the size increases to 7.0 inches from 6.2 inches. The Switch OLED Model also features an improved stand, better audio, and adds a wired LAN port to its stand for use in docked mode.

Heads up: the Nintendo Switch has proven to be tough to find, especially during the holiday season, so don’t leave this one to the last minute.

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Best All-In-One Music System With Turntable: Andover Audio Spin System

Andover Audio Spin SystemAndover Audio Spin System
  • Our pick: Andover Audio Spin System
  • Manufacturer’s suggested retail price: Components sold individually, ranging from $199 to $599

Andover Audio is an American audio brand led by an engineering team with backgrounds at firms Cambridge SoundWorks, Bose and Harmon. Designing high-end audio gear since 2012, the company has serious audiophile cred. And it’s focused on compact, turntable-based systems. In last year’s gift guide, the Andover Model One all-in-one system was featured. This year, it’s Andover’s Spin system.

This is a modular approach that you can add to. The base configuration is the SpinBase turntable speaker system ($299) plus a SpinDeck ($349) or SpinDeck MAX ($599) turntable. That configuration provides a solid, compact audio system with 270-degree sound, the ability to play your record collection in style, and Bluetooth streaming.

You can add to that base system with the SpinSub subwoofer ($299) and SpinStand system and record stand ($199) for a killer, compact audio system in a black or white finish.

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Best Compact Tablet: Apple iPad Mini

Photo of Apple iPad Mini Photo of Apple iPad Mini
  • Our pick: Apple iPad Mini
  • Manufacturer’s suggested retail price: Starting at $499

Compact tablets make great gifts. A small tablet is easy to slip into a bag for travel and it’s small enough to sit on a nightstand. It provides a bigger display than a smartphone, but it’s not too large. Compact tablets don’t get much better than Apple’s recently-launched 6th generation iPad mini.

Apple went with an all-screen design in this 2021 release, losing the Home button and increasing the screen size to 8.3-inches. It’s equipped with a high resolution Liquid Retina display with True Tone and P3 wide color support. The iPad mini is extremely powerful, with Apple’s latest chip — the A15 Bionic — inside. Apple also incorporated high end cameras with a 12MP rear shooter, and a 12MP FaceTime HD camera that supports Center Stage intelligent focus. It’s also great for jotting notes or sketching with the optional Apple Pencil 2.

The latest iPad Mini is perfect for reading, web browsing, streaming video, checking your social media feed, videoconferencing, and even snapping photos. It also packs the power for mobile gaming. It’s available in four colors and starts at $499 with 64GB of storage. Additional storage and 5G connectivity is available at extra cost.

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Best Wireless Headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4 Over-Ear Wireless Headphones with ANC

Photo of Sonny HeadphonesPhoto of Sonny Headphones

It should come as no surprise that Sony makes great headphones. When I reviewed the company’s WH-1000XM3 wireless headphones with ANC, I wore them to a water park on a hot summer day and parked myself in a chair just feet from a roller coaster track. With ANC active, there was nothing but silence despite hundreds of screaming kids and a thundering coaster hurtling past. Music sounds fantastic and spatial audio in the 360 Reality Audio format is supported. Battery life is excellent, at up to 38 hours.

Sony managed to top those with the WH-1000XM4 headphones, which scooped a CES 2021 Innovation Award. Voice call performance is improved, and they gain multi-point Bluetooth so they can be connected to two devices simultaneously (useful when working from home). ANC somehow gets even better and they gain DSEE Extreme upscaling, a feature that makes lossy files like MP3s sound better.

While there’s a strong case for Apple’s AirPods Pro headphones in this category, Sony’s WH-1000XM4s simply offer a better value.

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Best Wireless Earbuds: Ultimate Ears UE FITS

Photo of Ultimate EarsPhoto of Ultimate Ears

One of the most important factors in terms of how good earbuds are going to sound is their fit. Without a tight seal, bass in particular drops off, and even the best buds sound tinny. Of course  if they don’t fit properly, they are also unlikely to stay in place. Sometimes all the tips and wings in the world just won’t do it.

Ultimate Ears drove this point home when I tested the company’s UE 18+ CX earbuds. These are custom-molded buds that fit like a glove and sound phenomenal — but they cost as much as a mortgage payment. Fortunately, the company has adapted that custom-molding technology in the consumer UE Fits wireless earbuds.

An app walks you through the fitting process and after less than a minute you have custom-molded wireless earbuds that fit perfectly. They sound great, they’re extremely comfortable, and they stay in place. They’re available in midnight blue, gray, or lilac. What makes a better gift for a music lover than custom-molded earbuds? Especially when they cost a very reasonable $249…

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Best Portable Speaker: Ultimate Ears HYPERBOOM

Photo of the Hyperboom SpeakersPhoto of the Hyperboom Speakers

Ultimate Ears’ second product in this gift guide is making a repeat appearance after being featured in our 2020 gift guide. The reason why is simple: if you’re looking for a portable wireless speaker, there is nothing else (at a reasonable price point) that can touch the sound the Ultimate Ears HYPERBOOM puts out.

This is a big speaker (it weighs 13 pounds) and it’s packed with drivers including a pair of 4.5-inch woofers, two 1-inch tweeters, and two 7.5-inch passive radiators — a setup that delivers thumping bass, wide dynamic range, and 270-degree sound. A built-in adaptive EQ with mic automatically optimizes the audio for whatever environment you’re in and the mobile app lets you customize the audio to your heart’s content with a 5-band EQ.

It’s big and powerful, but also portable. The HYPERBOOM is equipped with an integrated handle, it has an IPX4 water resistance rating, and its battery will keep the music going for up to 24 hours.

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Best TV Soundbar: Sonos Beam (Gen 2)

Photo of Sonos BeamPhoto of Sonos Beam

You can spend a lot on a soundbar these days. Once considered a compromise solution for when someone lacked the space or budget for a full home theater rig, sound bars have evolved into fully featured systems in their own right.

The Sonos Beam (Gen 2) is a top pick for 2021. In its second generation, it adds support for Dolby Atmos 3D audio. It lacks upward-firing drivers, but two arrays are dedicated to reproducing overhead and surround effects. It’s not quite as effective as the Sonos Arc soundbar, which is equipped with actual upward-firing drivers — but that model retails for $899. The Sonos Beam 2 is pretty convincing while saving money that could be put toward a Sonos Sub wireless subwoofer for true movie theatre rumble.

The Sonos mobile app is required to set up the Beam (Gen 2), but you don’t need to be invested in the Sonos ecosystem to use this soundbar. In fact, it supports Wi-Fi music streamed via Apple AirPlay 2. Sonos Beam (Gen 2) is available in matte black or matte white finishes.

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Best Smart Lighting System: Nanoleaf Shapes

Photo of Nanoleaf ShapesPhoto of Nanoleaf Shapes
  • Our pick: Nanoleaf Shapes
  • Manufacturer’s suggested retail price: Kits start at $119.99

I test a lot of smart lighting solutions. Color-changing bulbs and LED strips are fine, but I’ve been a fan of Nanoleaf’s interlocking. wall-mounted smart light panels since the first version was released in 2016. I currently have around 50 Nanoleaf panels on my office walls. Nanoleaf’s Canvas took the best-smart smarting lighting honors in the 2020 gift guide.

Nanoleaf is back again in 2021, but this time with the all-new Nanoleaf Shapes. These new panels — available in hexagons, triangles, and small triangles — finally allow the mixing and matching of different shapes and sizes in a single Nanoleaf setup. This opens up a whole new level of custom designs. They also feature an improved connection system that makes it easier to remove panels.

Everything else that makes Nanoleaf smart panels great (and a great gift) remains. They’re Wi-Fi connected, support all the main smart home standards, they can display millions of colors and scenes, and they can pulse to music in various patterns.

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Best Whole Home Mesh Router System: Netgear Orbi Tri-Band Mesh Wi-Fi 6 System

Photo of Netgear RouterPhoto of Netgear Router

It seems like virtually everything in our homes is connected these days. It’s not just your smartphone, tablet, or PC. Smart TVs, video streamers, smart watches, smart speakers, game consoles, smart thermostats, smart door locks, smart lights, home security systems, and more are all connected. They all rely on the internet and they connect to the internet using your home’s Wi-Fi network.

Too often that Wi-Fi just isn’t up to the task. Connections drop, video streams buffer, games lag, and websites load slowly.

One of the best gifts you can give someone these days is a Wi-Fi upgrade. I’ve been testing a lot of routers over the past two years as Wi-Fi 6 makes its way into the mainstream. From my perspective, the ultimate solution to any home Wi-Fi woes is a Wi-Fi 6 mesh system. You get next-gen speed and features, plus whole-home coverage that a traditional router just can’t match. Netgear’s Orbi is the leader of the pack. It may cost more than other whole home mesh router systems, but Orbi is worth it.

The current sweet spot among the company’s offerings is the Orbi Tri-Band Mesh Wi-Fi 6 System. Comprised of a router and one satellite, it supports Wi-Fi 6, offers a maximum throughput of 6Gbps, supports over 100 devices with concurrent connections, and blankets 5000 square feet with seamless, reliable, fast Wi-Fi.

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Best eReader: Kobo Sage

Photo of Kobe Sage eReaderPhoto of Kobe Sage eReader
  • Our pick: Kobo Sage
  • Manufacturer’s suggested retail price: $259.99

For someone who reads a lot, an eReader is an excellent gift option. Chances are, even if they own one already, it’s getting long in the tooth. The new generation of eReaders makes models from even a few years ago look primitive in comparison, especially with advances in lighting and screen resolution. If you’re shopping for someone who is already heavily invested in Amazon Kindle eBooks, then the cream of the crop is the latest Kindle Oasis.

However, for anyone else, my suggestion is the Kobo Sage. The latest release from Kobo is the perfect piece of hardware for people who read a lot. Its 8-inch display is the largest in its class, and the E Ink Carta 1200 touchscreen is razor-sharp at 300 PPI. Kobo pioneered temperature-changing side-lighting with its ComfortLight PRO system that adjusts the lighting colour temperature and brightness to reduce eyestrain. It is IPX8 water resistant and can survive a dunking in three feet of water. The Sage offers 12 fonts and 50 font styles for complete customization of the reading experience.

Kobo e-readers also include integrated Overdrive support, which makes it easy to borrow eBooks from local libraries.

The Sage includes a number of new features (to Kobo) including upgrades to 802.11ac Wi-Fi and USB-C, Bluetooth connectivity and support for audiobooks, dark mode, plus support for an optional Kobo Stylus for penning notes.

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Best Gaming Laptop: ASUS ROG Zephyrus G15 (GA503QS-BS96Q)

photo of laptopphoto of laptop

Finally, what might be the most popular gift on the 2021 list: the best gaming laptop. The ASUS ROG Zephyrus G15 isn’t the most expensive gaming laptop you can buy. Far from it. But it offers a near-perfect balance. Between cost and performance, weight and battery life, performance and portability. This is the gaming laptop that does it all, and does so without feeling like compromises are being made.

Brace for the letters and numbers (the gamers will appreciate them):

  • The GA503QS-BS96Q version is equipped with AMD’s screaming Ryzen 9 5900HS Processor at 3.1 GHz.
  • There is a 16GB of DDR4 RAM onboard, upgradable to 40GB. 
  • Graphics are taken care of by Nvidia’s mighty GeForce RTX 3080 GPU with 6GB of DDR6 RAM. 
  • Storage is a super fast 1TB M.2 NVMe PCIe 3.0 SSD.
  • The six speaker audio system supports Dolby Atmos.
  • The 15.6-inch IPS display has WQHD resolution, a 165Hz refresh rate with FreeSync support, 3ms response time, and the color is Pantone validated. Heat is effectively dissipated by a pair of 84 blade fans and six heat pipes.

All this in a 0.78-inch thick laptop that weighs just 4.1 pounds and can stream video for eight hours on a charge.

Source: kiplinger.com