Archives 2021

New Radisson Rewards Americas loyalty program launches today – The Points Guy

Radisson to launch separate loyalty program for travelers in the Americas

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How to Generate Tax-Efficient Retirement Income

You know the importance of saving enough money for retirement so that you have readily available sources of funds to augment your guaranteed income from Social Security and any pensions. But did you also know that how you go about converting your assets into income can have significant tax implications?

Maximize Retirement Savings Flexibility

Developing a tax-aware withdrawal strategy starts with diversifying the various types of accounts you own. Ideally, you’d like to build a healthy mix of assets across taxable (savings and brokerage), tax-deferred (IRAs and 401(k) accounts), and tax-free accounts (Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k)s). This will allow you more flexibility in deciding how much income you should draw down each year and from which accounts to minimize your tax liability.

Since Roth IRAs are funded with after-tax dollars, not only are those accounts not subject to required minimum distributions (RMDs), but any withdrawals you make from them in retirement won’t count as taxable income. Taking distributions from a traditional IRA or 401(k), on the other hand, is different. Those distributions count as annual income that will be subject to taxes.

Which Assets Should You Draw Down First?

The answer will depend a great deal on your particular goals. If your main focus is on tax-efficient income, you may want to consider starting with distributions from your taxable accounts, then moving on to your tax-deferred accounts, and finally taking withdrawals from your tax-free accounts. The rationale is that by delaying distributions from your most tax-favored accounts as long as possible, those retirement dollars will have more time to continue growing.

If, on the other hand, you’re hoping to leave a significant legacy to the next generation, your income-generating strategy may require a bit more planning. Since tax-deferred accounts, such as IRAs or 401(k)s, don’t receive a step-up in basis when you die, if you hold highly appreciated assets (like company stock) in those accounts, you may want to deplete them first to help reduce the tax burden on your beneficiaries.

Some Distributions Will Be Required

To some extent, your choice of which assets to draw-down may be limited by retirement account tax rules. Whether or not you need the funds, you have to begin taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) from your tax-deferred accounts by April 1st of the year following the year in which you turn age 72.

It’s essential to factor RMDs into your annual income distribution plan. Why? Because if you don’t withdraw your full RMD, you’ll be subject to a 50% tax penalty on the amount you failed to withdraw.

Think About the Long-Term Tax Picture

People generally assume they’ll be in a lower tax bracket during retirement as their income decreases. But given the reduced tax rates resulting from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, combined with the federal deficits and debt resulting from various COVID-19 stimulus packages, there’s a strong case to be made that future tax rates may need to be significantly lifted.

Sequence Your Withdrawals to Provide Income

By carefully coordinating the sequence of your withdrawals, you can help minimize the total taxes paid over the course of your retirement — allowing you to potentially increase the amount you spend annually and/or extend the longevity of your portfolio. Typically, this sequence will adhere to the following order:

  1. Your annual RMDs.
  2. Cash flows from your taxable accounts (i.e., interest, dividends and capital gains distributions).
  3. Principal distributions from taxable accounts (e.g., bank withdrawals and investment account sales).
  4. Distributions from tax-advantaged accounts.

The underlying goal of this sequence is to maximize the compounding potential of your tax-advantaged accounts by keeping those assets working for you as long as possible.

4 Reasons for Reordering Your Distributions

Temporary changes in spending or income may require reordering the sequence of your distributions to minimize taxes or maximize benefits:

Avoid an increase in Medicare premiums or loss of subsidies for health insurance premiums from a health insurance exchange.

Avoid subjecting a greater portion of Social Security benefits to income taxes (see Social Security discussion below).

Maximize the use of the standard deduction.

Maximize the use of certain carry-forward deductions before expiration (such as charitable contributions or net operating losses).

Don’t Forget Your Social Security Income

Regardless of how much you’ve been able to put away in savings, Social Security will still be an important source of income in retirement. But those benefits may also be subject to income taxes depending on your combined income (your gross income + any tax-exempt interest + ½ of your annual Social Security benefit). The 2021 income thresholds for federal taxes are as follows:

If your combined income is between $25,000 and $34,000 (for individual filers) or $32,000 and $44,000 (for couples filing jointly), up to 50% of your Social Security benefit will be deemed taxable income;

If your combined income exceeds $34,000 (individuals) or $44,000 (married filing jointly), then 85% of your Social Security is subject to federal income taxes.

Being thoughtful in how you generate income from your various retirement accounts (e.g., tapping into your investment account or Roth IRA rather than your tax-deferred accounts when you’re close to the annual combined income threshold amount) can help further reduce your tax liability.

Tax Implications

Tax-deferred assets may be an attractive option for retirees who are charitably inclined for a few different reasons. Through qualified charitable donations (QCDs), a retiree can directly donate to a charity up to $100,000 per year without incurring any taxable income. This can also count toward the tax year’s required minimum distribution.

Retirees with highly appreciated securities in their taxable accounts can also consider lifetime gifting to charities, since the appreciation will not be subject to income taxation.

Contributions to a donor advised fund in higher-income years or moving highly appreciated assets to a donor advised fund for charitable giving can also be valuable.

Additional Considerations

One additional important consideration you’ll need to factor into your income decision is whether or not you expect your tax rate in retirement to be higher than it is now (due to either higher tax rates or high income). If this is the case, you may want to explore converting some of your traditional IRA assets to a Roth IRA.

You’ll have to pay income taxes now on the funds you convert, but your distributions in retirement will be totally tax-free. Roth IRAs also have no RMDs. So if you don’t need to access the funds for annual income, the account can continue growing tax-free — even beyond age 72, when traditional IRAs mandate that you begin taking annual distributions.

And given the recently passed SECURE Act retirement legislation, which compresses the timeframe in which beneficiaries must deplete any inherited traditional IRAs and 401(k) plan accounts, converting legacy assets to a Roth can provide tax benefits to your heirs as well. The most important consideration with any Roth conversion, however, is making sure you have sufficient funds (outside of your retirement accounts) to pay the taxes that will be due.

These are just a few of the many moving parts that will impact both your income and taxes in retirement. Other considerations you may want to explore include moving some of your non-qualified assets into an annuity to help reduce capital gains taxes; as well as using a permanent life insurance policy’s cash value as an additional tax-free retirement income stream.

Vice President & Head of Wealth Planning, Janney Montgomery Scott

Martin Schamis is the head of wealth planning at Janney Montgomery Scott, a full-service financial services firm, providing comprehensive financial advice and service to individual, corporate and institutional investors. In his current role, he is responsible for the strategic direction of the Wealth Planning Team, supporting more than 850 financial advisers who advise Janney’s private retail client base. Martin is a Certified Financial Planner™ professional.


[Public Link, YMMV] American Express Business Platinum 160,000 Point Offer, No Lifetime Language

Update 6/15/21: Here’s a link for the 160,000 offer: same 150,000 for $15,000 spend, plus 10,000 for adding an employee card within the first 3 months. Updated below. As always – YMMV.

The Offer

160,000 link | 150,000 link | 150,000 link

  • Get 100,000 points after $15,000 in spend within the first three months of card membership

Card Details

Our Verdict

If you’ve never had this card before, then the call in method is better due to the lower minimum spend requirement. The real nice thing about this offer is the fact it has no lifetime language meaning it’s possible to get the bonus if you’ve gotten the card before.

Hat tip to reader CreditDingo

Update History:

Update 6/9/21: There is also an offer for 160,000 points. Same as the 150,000 point offer but also another 10,000 for adding an employee card. E-mail subject line is ‘<name>, You’re invited to apply for an American Express Business Bundle’ Hat tip to bedogworthy.

Update 6/9/21: There’s now a public link to this offer (and here’s another link). Won’t work for everyone, YMMV. There’s a stated expiration of this offer of 12/31/21; of course it could get pulled earlier. (There’s also a no-lifetime-language offer on the Business Gold card.) Hat tip to Frequentmiler

Update 6/6/21: Another e-mail has gone out, 150k points again. Email has lifetime language, but actual application page does not. Subject line is ‘Limited-Time Offer for <name> You could earn 150,000 points’

Update 5/10/21: Another round, this time 150k points.

Update 4/24/21: Another round, try this link.

Update 4/5/21: Another round sent out.

Update 3/16/21: Another round sent out.

Update 2/16/21: Another round sent out.

Update 2/5/21: Another round has been sent out, this time the e-mail states the lifetime language but application page doesn’t. $595 annual fee is mentioned on application page. Hat tip to reader BS

Update 12/28/20: Another round has gone out.

Update 12/15/20: More people targeted. Remains to be seen if this new batch ends up having the annual fee waived first or not, just assume it doesn’t.

Update 12/10/20: Despite the terms stating the annual fee is not waived first year, multiple people (1,2,3) have reported applying and then card member approval paperwork showing the $595 annual fee waived first year. This is American Express though so every chance they try to add the annual fee back. I’d apply expecting to pay the annual fee and then it’s a happy surprise if you don’t have to


Explaining Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans

Most of us simply don’t have the cash on hand to pay for college or graduate school out of our pockets. The College Board estimates it costs $37,650 on average annually to attend a private non-profit four year university and $10,560 for in-state students at a public four-year school.

That means you might need to take out student loans to fund your education.To make sure you’re not in danger of defaulting on your loans or paying too much, you might want to understand some basics of student loans.

When you take out student loans, they’re either private or federal—meaning they either come from a private lender, like a bank, or are backed by the federal government.

Federal student loans are either subsidized or unsubsidized Direct loans. There are also Federal Direct PLUS loans for parents or graduate and professional students. Interest rates for federal loans are set by Congress and stay fixed for the life of the loan. Federal student loans come with certain protections for repayment.

But what are the differences in all those types of loans? When you’re weighing your options, you might want to understand some of the differences between a Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loan vs. a Direct Subsidized Loan vs. a private student loan, so you can evaluate all of your options.

What Is a Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loan?

The federal government offers two umbrellas of Direct loans: unsubsidized and subsidized . When you take out a loan, the principal amount of the loan begins to accrue interest as soon as the loan is disbursed (when the loan is paid out to you). That interest has to be paid or it is added onto the loan amount.

Subsidized Federal Student Loans

On a subsidized loan, the federal government (specifically, the US Department of Education) pays the interest while you’re in school, during the six-month grace period after you graduate, and if you temporarily defer the loans. On a Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loan, you are responsible for paying all of the interest on the loan.

Since the interest is paid for you while you are in school on a subsidized loan, it doesn’t accrue. So the amount you owe after the post-graduation grace period is the same as the amount you originally borrowed.

Unsubsidized Federal Student Loans

But on a Federal Direct Unsubsidized loan, the interest accumulates even while you’re in school and during the grace period—even though you aren’t required to make any payments while in school.

The interest is then capitalized, meaning it gets added to the total principal amount of your loan. That amount in turn accrues interest, and you end up owing more when you graduate than you originally borrowed.

Of course, you can make interest payments on your unsubsidized loan while you’re in school to save yourself money in the long run. However, you’re not required to start paying off the loan (principal plus interest) until six months after leaving school.

The current interest rate for the 2021-2022 school year for undergraduate subsidized and unsubsidized loans is set at 3.73% and the interest rate for graduate or professional unsubsidized loans is set at 6.28%. Those rates will remain fixed for the life of the loan.

How Do You Apply for a Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loan?

The first step to finding out what kind of financial aid you qualify for, including Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans and Subsidized Loans, is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®).

Your school will then use your FAFSA to present you with a financial aid package, which may include Federal Direct Unsubsidized and Subsidized Loans and other forms of financial aid like scholarships, grants, or eligibility for the work-study program.

The financial aid and loans you’re eligible for is determined by your financial need, the cost of school, and things like your year in school and if you’re a dependent or not.

Who Qualifies for Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans?

Federal Direct Subsidized loans are awarded based on financial need . However, Federal Direct Unsubsidized loans are not based on financial need.

To receive either type of loan, you must be enrolled in school at least half-time and enrolled at a school that participates in the Federal Direct loan program. And while subsidized loans are only available to undergraduates, unsubsidized loans are available to undergrads, grad students, and professional degree students.

Pros and Cons of a Federal Unsubsidized Direct Loan

There are pros and cons to taking out federal unsubsidized direct loans.


•  Both undergraduates and graduate students qualify for Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans.

•  Borrowers also don’t have to prove financial need to receive an unsubsidized loan.

•  The loan limit is higher than on subsidized loans.

•  Federal Direct Loans, compared to private loans, come with income-based repayment plan options and certain protections in case of default.


•  Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans put all the responsibility for the interest on you (as opposed to subsidized loans). Interest accrues while students are in school and is then capitalized, or added to the total loan amount.

•  There are limits on the loan amounts.

The Takeaway

Federal unsubsidized loans are available to undergraduate and graduate students and are not awarded based on financial need. Unlike subsidized loans, the government does not cover the interest that accrues while students are enrolled in school.

Unsubsidized federal loans are eligible for federal benefits like income-driven repayment plans or Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

After graduating, some students may consider refinancing student loans to secure a lower interest rate. One thing to know: When you refinance your student loans with a private lender, the loan is no longer a federal loan, so you lose any potential default protections or repayment options that came with the federal loan.

Recommended: Should I Refinance My Federal Loans?

It is possible to consolidate your loans into a federal consolidation loan and keep it as a federal loan, but it doesn’t necessarily lower the interest rate. (The rate would simply be the weighted average of your existing rates.)

A lower interest payment means you could reduce the amount of money you spend over the life of the loan.

Considering refinancing your unsubsidized federal loan? Pre-qualify online with SoFi to see what financing options might be available.

SoFi Loan Products
SoFi loans are originated by SoFi Lending Corp. or an affiliate (dba SoFi), a lender licensed by the Department of Financial Protection and Innovation under the California Financing Law, license # 6054612; NMLS # 1121636 . For additional product-specific legal and licensing information, see

SoFi Student Loan Refinance
Notice: SoFi refinance loans are private loans and do not have the same repayment options that the federal loan program offers such as Income-Driven Repayment plans, including Income-Contingent Repayment or PAYE. SoFi always recommends that you consult a qualified financial advisor to discuss what is best for your unique situation.

External Websites: The information and analysis provided through hyperlinks to third party websites, while believed to be accurate, cannot be guaranteed by SoFi. Links are provided for informational purposes and should not be viewed as an endorsement.
Third Party Brand Mentions: No brands or products mentioned are affiliated with SoFi, nor do they endorse or sponsor this article. Third party trademarks referenced herein are property of their respective owners.
Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.


Dear Penny: Is Relationship Doomed if One Person Earns Way More?

You won’t always fall in love with someone in your tax bracket. That disparity is often a big source of stress in relationships, judging from the Dear Penny inbox.

You don’t have to be in the same place moneywise for a relationship to succeed. But having vastly different incomes or debt levels can be a dealbreaker if you can’t find a way to be equal partners. Here are four dilemmas about how to navigate love with someone who earns way more or less than you do.

‘My Rich Boyfriend Worries I’ll Burden Him if We Marry’

Dear Penny,

I’m a 35-year-old female who’s divorced, and my boyfriend is 38 and never married. We’ve been dating for two years, and it’s been wonderful. Recently, we’ve been having talks about our future, but money is a bit of a hang-up for him. 

He makes significantly more than I do (between four to five times as much), and he worries that my low income means I’ll be a burden on him when we get older if we decide to marry. The way I see it, I am very responsible with the money I do make. I don’t have any debt, and I pay all my own bills. 

I’m not asking him for anything, although I do understand that at this rate my retirement savings will be meager while his will be substantial. That could lead to problems if he wants to travel and not feel bitter about having to pay for me for everything later on. 

Do you have any advice for us? 


Dear R.,

It’s been a wonderful two years. You’re talking about growing old together. Then the conversation turns to how little money you make and how you might be a burden to your boyfriend later on.

That doesn’t sound wonderful to me. That sounds cruel.

Read the full column here.

‘We Want to Travel Post-COVID, but He’s Too Poor’

Dear Penny,

I’m 70 and a widow of six years. I was married for almost 43 years. Two years ago, I met a man from New England on a dating site who’s just a bit older than me. We’re both healthy and physically active. We love to dance, hike and visit new places.

He doesn’t have much money. His Social Security is minimal. He saves it and lives off of the money he makes from his business and the settlement his ex-wife sends him, which will end in two years. His house is paid off, his expenses are low, and he is careful with his money.

My husband left me financially secure. We were always careful with money and never lived an extravagant lifestyle. I’ve got two adult children who are financially independent.

The man I’m seeing doesn’t have much disposable income and isn’t concerned about it. I’m not sure about a long-term future with him feeling this way. When this pandemic is over, we’d both like to travel and do more, but I don’t want to travel on the cheap. I’m not talking about fine dining and five-star hotels. Just something in-between. I have no problem paying my share, but not for both of us.  

Is this relationship doomed because of our differences in attitude on finances? Should we just enjoy what we have?

-Am I Too Old to Have It All?

Dear Am I Too Old,

You found a guy who isn’t rich, but does he make your life richer? Your letter screams “yes” to me.

You share the same hobbies. You like his family and friends. It seems like he’s an equal partner with you, even though he can’t pay 50% of the bills.

Your boyfriend sounds like someone who manages what little money he does have wisely. He can afford his lifestyle — he just can’t afford your lifestyle.

Read the full column here.

‘Will My Huge Paycheck Scare Away the Men I Date?’

Dear Penny,

As a single girl in her late 20s, I make a more-than-decent living in an area where cost of living is relatively low. I’m making significantly more than the average person here, especially at my age.

As I’m getting more serious about dating, I’m finding that people of my generation are very upfront about their financial situations, and many of the men I’m dating are thrown by even the implication of the money I earn. 

With millennial-age individuals being more and more casual about discussing their financial status, at what point are you meant to disclose your income in a relationship? 


Dear K.,

Pretend you’re having the salary talk with a guy you’re dating. You go into the conversation expecting that you’ll be the higher earner. But then the man surprises you. How would you feel if he reveals he earns three or four times more than you do?

Read the full column here.

‘My Fiance Got Laid Off, but I Didn’t Sign Up to Be the Breadwinner’

Dear Penny,

My fiance lost his job nearly six months ago and got a decent severance payout. We used most of the money to pay off debt and have been surviving on my salary.

I make enough to pay our bills, but there’s very little left over for extras. We’re living like hermits, and we aren’t putting money aside for emergencies or our goal of buying a home.

My fiance doesn’t seem to think that this is a problem because we’re making ends meet. He isn’t looking for jobs, hangs out around the house all day and says he needed a break from working.

Penny, I never wanted to be the sole earner, and I hate living paycheck to paycheck. He tells me to stop nagging him whenever I ask him when he’ll start searching for a job.

How do I get him to understand how stressed I am about our finances?

-Squeaking By

Dear Squeaking By,

Try saying this: “I am stressed about our finances.”

Say it when you’re sober. Don’t say it after a hellish workday or in the middle of a fight over whose turn it is to scrub the toilet. Say it soon.

Read the full column here.

Have a question about love and money? Send it to [email protected] Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. 

Related Posts




Self-Uniting Marriage: How to Officiate Your Ceremony and Save Money

For better or worse, when you get married in the United States, the legal system is largely constructed for those who practice a specific type of Christian faith. That typically means a clergy member will join the couple in the eyes of the law.

But American participation in organized religion has been trending downward since the 1970s. Millennials have parted ways with religious tradition in the greatest numbers, and Gen Z is being raised by a generation who is markedly less religious than its parents.

It can feel weird to pay an officiant from a religion you don’t follow to oversee one of the most important commitments of your life. In many states, the only other option is a judge or justice of the peace, which again forces the couple to invite an outsider to this intimate life milestone.

In a handful of states, you can get around the outsider officiant quandary through a process called self-uniting marriage or self-solemnization. This solution doesn’t just save you awkwardness. It can also save you cold, hard cash by eliminating the wedding day officiant fee.

What is Self-Uniting Marriage?

Ironically, the way to get married without an officiant was paved by religious tradition. Self-uniting marriage is a Quaker tradition stemming from a belief that every person has equal access to God. Because there is no need for clergy mediation, you won’t find an officiant at a Quaker wedding ceremony. Rather than having a clergy member marry the couple, the couple itself officiates the ceremony.

Religious freedom is an important part of American ethos. This made it particularly important in states with historically large Quaker populations – like Pennsylvania – that Quaker ceremonies be accepted within the law.

The Baha’i faith also practices self-uniting marriages, and is often explicitly mentioned in state laws surrounding self-solemnizing marriage.

I’m Not a Quaker. Can I Self-Unite?

You may be wondering how all this is helpful to you. You probably aren’t Quaker yourself. You may or may not believe in God at all. Can you even legally conduct a self-uniting marriage if you’re not Quaker?

The answer is, “Yes.” At least in some states.

It wasn’t always so clear, though. In 2007, a couple who did not practice the Baha’i or Quaker religions applied for a self-uniting marriage in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. They were asked about their religion, and they told the truth. Because of their answer, they were denied a marriage license.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) stepped in, arguing the couple’s First Amendment rights had been violated. They had been asked about their religion, and because of their answer were denied a government service, which was deemed religious discrimination.

A U.S. district judge ruled that the ACLU was right. Since then, the organization has enabled couples in other counties across the state of Pennsylvania to get married through self-solemnization. Although you might come across a county clerk who does not initially want to comply, legally you do not have to be Quaker or Baha’i to be issued a self-uniting marriage license in Pennsylvania.

This same logic has been adopted by most states that allow self-uniting marriage.

Which States Allow Self-Uniting Marriages?

There are only a handful of states that have self-solemnization written into their laws. And each state manages the practice slightly differently.

Maine and Nevada allow self-uniting marriages, but only for specific faith groups. In Maine, you must be a member of the Quaker or Baha’i faiths. In Nevada, the only allowances to the traditional officiant route are for Quakers and American Indians.

However, in all other states that allow self-uniting marriages, there’s more leeway.


Self-uniting marriage often goes by the term “non-clergy wedding” in the state of California. In 2016, with some prompting from advocacy group Americans United, San Francisco County allowed the first official atheist, non-clergy marriage in California.

Not all county clerks will be familiar with the process of obtaining a non-clergy marriage license outside of the context of the Quaker faith. But there is a precedent you can call on when making your case, and you should be able to have a non-clergy wedding regardless of your faith.


In Colorado, anyone can seek out a self-solemnizing marriage license. Colorado is also one of the only places where couples are not required to have witnesses. It can literally be just you and your partner.

District of Columbia

Washington, D.C.’s laws around self-uniting marriage are similar to Colorado’s. Anyone can self-solemnize without an officiant, and no witnesses are required.


Illinois state law allows self-uniting marriage, and it does not specify which religion you must observe to take part in the practice.


In Kansas, you can have a self-uniting marriage as long as this type of wedding ceremony is congruent with your religious faith and traditions. However, Kansas law does not specify which religion you must affiliate with, making it possible to get a self-uniting marriage even if you are not Quaker or Baha’i.


In Pennsylvania, you do not need an officiant to get married regardless of your religion. If the county clerk balks, which is more common in rural counties, you can either point to precedent or try another clerk in a nearby county.


Wisconsin allows self-uniting marriages and does not limit the practice to those of the Quaker or Baha’i faith. Technically, self-uniting marriage must be a part of yours or your soon-to-be spouse’s religious practices, but you should not be denied a marriage license simply because you’re not Quaker or Baha’i. In fact, the clerk’s office should not ask you to prove your faith per state guidelines.

What’s the Application Process?

The application process for a self-uniting marriage license should be the same or similar to the process required by anyone seeking a “traditional” marriage license. Before the pandemic, that meant scheduling an in-person appointment with the county clerk’s office and answering a few questions.

During the pandemic, many counties across the country are allowing this meeting to happen online via Zoom or another teleconferencing platform. Generally speaking, you will need to show your ID on camera to prove your identity, and from there you can ask and answer any questions.

“We know these are life events and we wanted to make sure our office didn’t meet a beat,” says Paul López, the clerk and recorder for the city and county of Denver. Denver County started offering online marriage license application appointments early in the COVID-19 crisis.

“We prioritized it, and at the end of the day, love prevailed. Even during the pandemic.”

The availability of online marriage application appointments varies from county to county, even within the same state. In most counties that still allow for or require you to come in person to apply for a marriage license, you will need to schedule an appointment rather than showing up unannounced.

A couple tie the knot with hot air balloons all around them.
Getty Images

Is Self-Solemnization More Expensive?

No, self-solemnizing is almost always less expensive than having a traditional marriage ceremony with an officiant present. This is because you won’t have to pay any fees or feel obligated to “gift” money to a third-party.

However, some counties will charge a slightly higher fee when you apply for a self-uniting marriage license. For example, in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, you won’t pay any extra fees for your marriage license just because you’ll be married via self-solemnization. But on the other side of the state in Philadelphia County, you will incur an additional $10 fee.

This fee is nominal. When you account for the money you’re saving on officiant fees, you still come out on top.

Can Self-Uniting Wedding Be Remote?

Sometimes! It depends on where you live. It’s good to check in advance and you may find that there have been changes in policies, or at least talk of changes, because of the pandemic, which has paved the way for many official remote activities.

States with Remote Self-Solemnization

Denver is a great place to have a remote marriage ceremony, from obtaining your marriage license to saying your vows. Colorado requires no witnesses at your wedding ceremony, allowing you to Zoom guests in without needing their signatures or physical presence.

The District of Columbia’s law similarly requires no witnesses, allowing you to have a completely remote wedding.

California is unique in that it still requires two witnesses be present at your wedding ceremony per state law. But it explicitly allows your witnesses to attend the wedding via online teleconferencing.

States Where You Might Have to Self-Solemnize in Person

In Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the rules are more blurry. Prior to the pandemic, two witnesses were required to attend the ceremony in person. During the pandemic, neither state wanted to commit to requiring this physical presence and advised couples to get legal consultation if they had any concerns.

You will also want to make sure to seek specific legal counsel if you are getting married in Kansas or Illinois.

Odds are, the validity of your marriage ceremony won’t be challenged unless you decide to get divorced later. At that point, though, if your marriage is determined to not be legally binding, so a divorce would be unnecessary. The courts may determine that you were never married in the first place, which can have significant financial and legal ramifications.

Brynne Conroy is a contributor to The Penny Hoarder.


34% of Credit Reports Have Errors, Survey Finds

Shocked woman looking at her credit report
Ljupco Smokovski /

Experts long have recommended that consumers regularly check their credit reports for errors. Now, results of a new survey may add some urgency to that call.

When Consumer Reports asked nearly 6,000 people to participate in its Credit Checkup project, 34% reported finding at least one mistake in their credit reports.

CR says 29% of consumers uncovered personal information errors, such as a wrong name or address.

Account information errors popped up for 11% of respondents. The most common such error was an account that the participant did not recognize.

In addition, 10% of respondents said accessing their credit reports was “difficult” or “very difficult.” A number of people could not access their reports due to identity verification questions they could not answer.

In some cases, respondents faced difficulties that appeared to amount to potential violations of federal law or other rules. For example, some who participated in the survey said credit bureaus charged them to access their credit reports.

Normally, all Americans are entitled to one free credit report annually from each of the three major credit-reporting companies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. However, as we have reported, consumers now have the right to access their reports for free weekly through April 2022.

Other survey respondents said they had been signed up for paid services unknowingly. And among consumers who reported having accounts in forbearance, 15% said one or more of these accounts were not being reported as “current” as required under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020.

After hearing back from consumers about their struggles, Consumer Reports contacted each of the three major credit-reporting companies and called on them to make sure credit reports are accurate. They also asked them to help consumers obtain free credit reports and scores at any time.

CR also unveiled a petition that consumers can sign that makes the same requests.

Syed Ejaz, policy analyst for Consumer Reports, said in a press release:

“It’s time to hold the credit bureaus accountable for making sure credit reports are fair and accurate and to give consumers free access to their reports and scores at all times. No one should ever have to pay to access their own credit information.”

Mistakes in credit reports can lower your credit score, which can have serious consequences ranging from having to pay higher interest rates on loans to hindering your efforts to land a job or find an apartment.

For that reason, it is important to find credit report errors so you can let credit-reporting companies know about them.

To get your free credit report, but sure to visit, the only credit report website authorized by federal law. We break down the process in “How to Get Your Free Credit Report in 6 Easy Steps.”

Although access to credit reports should be free, you still have to pay to see your credit score — unless you know where to look. For more, check out “7 Ways to Get Your FICO Credit Score for Free.”

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.


Which Bills to Pay Off First (or Cancel) When Money Runs Tight

Whether it’s from job loss due to a recession, a drop in income, or an unexpected major expense, there may come a time when you struggle to pay your bills. What can you do when your income and expenses don’t match up?

It’s essential you prioritize your bill payments and what you owe, paying the most important bills first.

Bills to Prioritize When You’re Low on Money

The most important bills are those that cover the necessities: shelter, food, water, and heat, for example.

The next most important are bills that cover things that make it possible for you to get where you need to go, such as your vehicle expenses.

Last on the list are bills that can ding your credit history, but not much else, if you fall behind on them.

Although you can make some adjustments to the order you pay bills based on your circumstances, it’s usually best to focus on paying your housing bills first, then paying what you can with the money you have remaining.

1. Mortgage or Rent

If you fall behind on mortgage payments, you risk having the lender foreclose on your home. If you fall behind on rent, your landlord can evict you.

Even though the foreclosure or eviction process can take months, it’s not something you want to risk happening. Keeping up with your housing payments is a must if you want to stay in your home.

When money is really tight and you’re not sure you can pull together enough to make a payment one month, the best thing to do is talk to your landlord or lender.

Many mortgage lenders have programs in place to help homeowners who are facing financial hardship. Your lender can review your options, such as forbearance or loan modification, with you.

During forbearance, you stop making payments on your loan, but interest continues to accrue. If a lender agrees to modify your loan, they adjust your interest rate or otherwise make changes to lower your monthly payment.

The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) also has programs available to homeowners struggling with their mortgage payments. You can contact HUD to connect with an approved counseling agency. The counselor can work with you to create a plan to help you avoid foreclosure.

If you’re a renter, talk to your landlord as soon as you know you’ll have difficulty paying rent. Explain the situation to them in detail, including whether you think you’ll be late with payment, won’t be able to pay all your monthly rent, or won’t be able to pay at all.

Many landlords are willing to work with you to come up with a solution. You can help the situation by suggesting solutions.

For example, if you’re going to pay late, tell the landlord when you plan to make the payment. If you can’t pay the full amount this month, tell the landlord how you’ll make up the difference. For example, you can add an extra $100 or so to subsequent payments until you pay off the balance.

If you’re renting and your landlord can’t or won’t be flexible about payments, you might have more wiggle room than a homeowner.

Depending on how much time you have left on the lease, you can simply wait it out, then look for a less expensive place to live. Another option is to try to find someone to take over your lease so you can move somewhere that costs less.

2. Utilities

After your mortgage or rent payment, the next most important bills are your utility bills: gas, water and sewage, and electricity. Although some people count TV and the Internet as utilities, those services aren’t essential for everyone.

Fortunately, many programs exist to help people who need emergency financial assistance paying bills. The first place to look is your local utility provider. Many utility companies have programs to help people pay their bills.

Another option is the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), a federally funded program that provides financial assistance to help people pay energy bills. LIHEAP has specific income requirements and is grant-funded, meaning only a set amount of money is available each year.

If you think you qualify for LIHEAP, the sooner you apply for it, the better your chances of receiving aid.

3. Insurance Premiums

Having insurance is always a good idea, as it provides financial protection against the worst things life can throw your way, such as illness, fire, or accidents. Paying your insurance premiums even when money is tight is a smart move. Without insurance, medical bills can easily add up.

If you’re struggling to afford your premiums, you do have some options, particularly when it comes to health insurance.

If you purchased a plan from the marketplace, you qualify for a special enrollment period if you’ve recently lost your job and associated coverage, if you’ve had a change in income, if you’ve gotten divorced, and for a few other reasons.

During the special enrollment period, you can apply for Medicaid or CHIP if your income is below the threshold or a credit on your insurance premiums based on your income. Doing so can lower the cost of your health insurance considerably.

4. Food & Household Necessities

Food, soap, and paper products are up there with shelter, heat, and hot water on the list of essentials.

Luckily, you have more wiggle room when it comes to adapting your food and household supply costs compared to your mortgage or rent payments and utility bills.

When money’s tight, there are many ways you can trim your food and supplies bill:

  • Limit Shopping Trips. Plan your meals for the week, make a list of the ingredients you need, and go to the store once. The more you go to the store, the more likely you are to buy things you don’t need.
  • Buy Store-Brand Items. Store-brand products usually taste the same as or similar to their brand-name counterparts, but they cost a lot less. If you typically purchase branded foods and supplies, try switching to the store brand. It’s likely the only place you’ll notice a difference is in your wallet.
  • Limit Packaged Products. Packaged foods, such as grated cheese, bagged salads, and prechopped vegetables are convenient, but that convenience comes at a cost. You can save a lot if you buy whole, unprocessed foods and prepare them at home.
  • Skip Bottled Water. If you live in the U.S., it’s highly likely your tap water is safe to drink. According to the CDC, the U.S.’s water supply is among the safest in the world. Bottled water is expensive and terrible for the environment and is often little more than repackaged municipal water.
  • Buy In-Season Produce. Pay attention to seasons when shopping for fresh produce. Fruits like strawberries and blueberries are usually in season and inexpensive during the summer but cost more in the winter. You can cut your grocery costs if you buy what’s in season.
  • Grow Your Own. Another way to cut your food bill is to grow your own fruits and vegetables. Herbs and green vegetables are usually the most cost-effective edible plants to grow, as you can get an entire plant for the price of a handful of herbs or greens at the grocery store. You don’t need a ton of outdoor space to start a garden. You can grow plants in containers on a small balcony or patio.
  • Use Your Freezer. Frozen vegetables and fruit often cost less than fresh, so it pays to purchase those when money is tight. You can also prep double batches of meals to freeze for later. That way, if you run out of money before the end of the month, you have a supply of ready-to-eat meals waiting for you.

Note too that depending on your income, you can qualify for financial assistance with groceries. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, aka food stamps, helps to cover the cost of groceries for people with income below certain thresholds.

Pro tip: Make sure you’re saving as much money as possible on your grocery trip. Apps like Fetch Rewards and Ibotta allow you to save money on purchases by simply scanning and uploading your receipts.

5. Car Loan & Other Expenses

Your car gets you to and from work and other important places, such as your kids’ school, the grocery store, and the doctor. If you have a monthly car payment, it’s crucial to find a way to pay it.

Just as you can call your mortgage company to work out a deal, you can call the lender behind your car loan to see if you can come to an agreement. Like mortgage companies, these lenders can also offer you loan modifications, refinancing, or forbearance.

Loan modification or refinance can lower the amount of your monthly payments, making it easier for you to afford the car. Forbearance means you don’t make payments for a set period.

Another option is to sell your current vehicle, use the proceeds to pay off the loan, then purchase a less expensive model. If you decide to sell, look for a replacement car that has a low cost of ownership to keep your expenses low. Some vehicles are more reliable than others, meaning you don’t have to worry about expensive repair or maintenance bills.

6. Unsecured Debts

Although you should make every effort to repay your debts, when money is tight, unsecured debt, such as credit card debt and personal loans, should move to the back burner. While these debts typically have the highest interest rates, they also have the lowest impact on your daily life.

You don’t go hungry if you miss a credit card payment, nor can your credit card company take your home or car if you pay late.

That said, it’s still best to pay what you can toward unsecured debts, such as the minimum due on a credit card. If even that is too much for you right now, contact the card company or lender. Sometimes, credit card companies are willing to work with you to create a debt repayment plan or let you temporarily pause payments.

7. Student Loans

While you should make every effort to pay your student loans when money’s tight, the loans often have the most flexibility when it comes to repayment, particularly federal loans.

If you have federal student loans and you’re struggling to keep up with payments, you have multiple options. You can request a deferment or forbearance from your loan servicer, or you can switch to an income-driven repayment plan, which adjusts the amount you pay each month based on your income.

The situation with private student loans is a bit different, as they don’t have the same protections as the federal student loan program.

If you’re having trouble affording private student loan payments, your best option is to contact the lender to see if it offers forbearance, repayment plans, or loan modification.

What to Cancel When Money Is Tight

While some monthly bills are essential, others are considerably less so. Budgeting often involves deciding what you need to spend money on and what you can live without.

When it’s a struggle to make ends meet, here’s what you can consider cutting:

Subscription Services

Netflix, print or digital newspapers, and meal kits are all things that can go. In many cases, you can find free alternatives to the subscriptions you were paying for. For example, some local libraries give you access to streaming movies and local or national newspapers for free.

Make sure you don’t miss any subscriptions that you might have forgotten about. Services like Truebill will find subscriptions and either cancel them or negotiate lower rates for you.

Cable and Internet Service

You may not want to disconnect your Internet completely, but see if you can switch to a slower, less expensive plan.

If you have data on your phone, some providers, like Xfinity Mobile, let you use your phone as a hotspot to get online. In this case, you wouldn’t need a separate home Internet plan.

Phone Service

While you do need your phone to stay connected, you most likely don’t need both a landline and a cellphone. You probably don’t need the most expensive cellphone plan, either.

Shop around with companies like Mint Mobile or Ting to see if you can get a better deal.

Gym Memberships and Wellness Services

Maintaining your well-being is important, especially when money is tight. But if you’re worried about having enough money to pay your most important bills, you shouldn’t have to worry about paying for a monthly gym membership or studio pass.

There are plenty of ways to work out for free from the comfort of your home. For example, you can find workouts available for free on YouTube.

Final Word

When money is tight, it’s vital you focus on paying for the things that can help you sustain your life and well-being, such as food and shelter, when times are tight.

While a missed payment can affect your credit history, in desperate situations, your health and safety are more important than your credit score.

Along with prioritizing your monthly bills, talk to your lenders and service providers. Many companies have programs in place to keep you from sinking deeper into debt and to help you avoid repossession of your home or vehicle. Keep the lines of communication open, and remember you’ll get through it.


5 things you may not know about your FICO score

FICO score

If you are applying for a loan or purchasing a new car or home in the near future, you are probably very interested in your FICO® score. Your FICO score is the three-digit number on your credit report that tells creditors how much of a credit risk you may be. The higher your FICO score, the less of a risk you seem and the better your credit rating.

If you have negative items on your credit reports, they will impact your FICO score. But how long do these negative items stay on your credit reports, and how much do they impact your score?

Here are five things you may not know about your FICO score:

1. Payment history is a big deal

There are five major factors that determine your FICO score:

  • Payment history (35% of your score)—Do you make your payments on time? If not, these accounts may show up as negative items on your credit reports.
  • Amount owed (30%)—How much debt are you currently carrying?
  • Length of credit history (15%)—Are you a new borrower, or do you have a long track record?
  • New credit (10%)—How many accounts have you opened recently? Opening several in a short time creates more risk.
  • Credit mix (10%)—Do you have a variety of credit accounts? A good mix of different types of credit accounts is better for your score.

If you are repairing your credit, make your payment history an important priority. When you are late on payments to multiple credit accounts, each late payment will be counted separately and could majorly impact your credit score.

2. The average FICO score is 700

Your personal score can fall into five FICO scoring ranges:

  • 800-850: Exceptional
  • 740-799: Very Good
  • 670-739: Good
  • 580-669: Fair
  • 300-579: Poor

Most people have a score between 580 to 800. FICO scores do not go lower than 300, but some people do not have a FICO score at all because they have not established any credit. Only about 0.5% of people have achieved a perfect credit score of 850.

3. Negative items can stay on your credit report for 7 years

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) sets a seven-year limit for most negative items to stay on your credit reports. Bankruptcy can impact your reports for up to ten years. Inquiries may remain on a credit report for up to two years. These are the maximum limits, but your creditors or the credit bureaus can choose to remove negative credit items earlier, if there is a reason to do so.

4. Employers cannot see your FICO score

A lot of people think that potential employers can look at your credit score during the hiring process. Some employers will ask to see your credit report, but it is a different version from the one you and your creditors use and is specifically to screen job candidates.

5. You have more than one FICO score

Each of the three credit bureaus uses its own version of the FICO score on its credit report. In addition, FICO has industry-specific scores, such as the FICO Auto Score for auto financing. And on top of that, there are several versions of each industry-specific score. So in all, you could have 28 different FICO scores!

If you have negative items on your credit reports, it can take time to improve your FICO score—but it is worth the investment of effort. For more information on how to improve your FICO Score and how to remove negative items from your credit reports, professional credit repair services can help. Contact us today to discuss your FICO score and learn about your options.


How to Protect Yourself From a Mechanics Lien

Every homeowner who’s considering hiring a contractor to do some work in or around their house should make sure they’re familiar with their state’s mechanics lien laws before making a decision. Never heard of a mechanics lien? You’re not alone. Let’s uncover what it is and why you should protect yourself from it.

Think Twice About Not Paying

If you wind up having a beef with the contractor you employ for builds or repairs – poor workmanship, perhaps, or maybe they walked off the job before it was completed or failed to finish the work in a timely manner as promised – and you decide not to pay, that contractor can respond by attaching your house to a legal claim for unpaid work until some kind of settlement is reached.
That could turn into a waiting game if you are not considering selling your home. But, if you intend to put your home on the market in the near future, that lien could stop you in your tracks.
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What EXACTLY is a Mechanics Lien?

Sometimes known as a materialmans lien, every state has a a mechanics lien law granting tradespeople a way to protect themselves from those who fail to pay them for services and time rendered.
Here’s how Rusty Adams, a research attorney for the Texas Real Estate Research Center at Texas A&M University, described it in a recent edition of Terra Grande, the Center’s monthly magazine:
“It is an equitable interest that gives its holder the right to have satisfaction out of the property to secure payment on a debt. It is not title to the property, and a lien holder does not have ownership rights. Rather, it is an equitable interest that gives the lien holder the right to have satisfaction out of the property to secure the payment of a debt.”
In other words, it is an encumbrance the property owner must deal with, one way or another. Otherwise, it could result in a foreclosure and forced sale of your house.

How Mechanics Liens Work

None of what follows should be considered legal advice. Rather, it is intended only as a brief, mile-high overview.
A mechanics lien can be filed by anyone with a claim against the property. This concept isn’t new; for example, Uncle Sam can place a lien if you fail to pay your taxes, as can your state. Your homeowners association can do the same if you don’t pay your dues or a special assessment.
In the case of work done to your house, the contractor can file if you fail to pay, even if you feel you’re justified in withholding. The company from which he or she gets their supplies – roof shingles, for instance – can also file against your house if the contractor doesn’t pay them. And if the contractor uses subcontractors, they, too, can go against the house if the contractor doesn’t pay them.
The “very broad” law in Maryland “covers almost everything,” attorney Harvey Jacobs says. For example, if the developer doesn’t pay the paving company hired to cover your cul-de-sac, the company can file a mechanics lien against every house that touches that street. Ditto for the outfit hired to landscape, sod and plant shrubs.
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How to Protect Against Mechanics Liens

Fortunately, lien laws afford owners some protections. In some places, the amount owed must be of at least a certain amount. They also must be filed within a certain number of days from when the work was completed, and may require the property owner to be notified within a specified time that a lien has been filed.
The rules, which also apply to subs and suppliers, can be somewhat tricky for an owner to decipher. But the absolute best way to protect yourself is to require the contractor to provide lien releases before you pay anything more than your down payment. In other words, no draws or final payment until he or she certifies that everyone in the chain has been paid.
Often, says Texas attorney Adams, a notice of intent to file or the actual filing is enough to resolve the debt attached to the property without going through the process itself.
Once payment has been received, a contractor has a duty to remove the notice or the lien itself from public records. Failure to do so allows the property owner to file a lawsuit against the contractor to compel the lien’s removal. But to avoid that, Adams suggests making sure the release has been recorded.

(READ MORE: The Difference Between a Handyman and a Contractor)

Some Important Distinctions

A lien release is not the same as a lien waiver. Nor is it the same as a lis pendens. While a release removes an existing lien, a waiver is an agreement that prohibits a contractor or supplier from placing a lien on the property. But some states don’t permit waivers at all.
A lis pendens, which is Latin for “suit pending,” is a written notice that a lawsuit has been filed in the county land records office involving either the title to the property or a claimed ownership interest in it. The notice alerts a potential purchaser or lender that the property’s title is in question, making it less attractive, if only because the buyer or lender is subject to the suit’s ultimate outcome.
Beyond this, it is crucial for a homeowner to ensure the contractor, subcontractor or supplier has followed the rules of the road.  In Texas, said Adams, the claimant must give the appropriate preliminary notices, make the proper filing and give filing notice to the property owner.
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In Maryland, the unpaid amount must be at least 15% of the property’s assessed value. So if the house is assessed at $100,000, the lien must be for $15,000 or more. “Small jobs don’t count,” Jacobs said. Contractors must also file a lien within 180 days of performing the work in Maryland, but subs must file within 120 days.
In neighboring D.C., though, there is no minimum to file, and the contractor, supplier or sub has only 90 days to file.
(Note: In the case of mechanics liens, property value is an evidentiary question. Courts often use assessed value in deciding whether a lien can be brought.)
In Texas, though, contractors aren’t required to provide a preliminary notice, but they are required to present a list of all subs and suppliers before starting work. But subs and suppliers who have a contract with the original contractor must send notices to both the contractor and the homeowner by the 15th day of the second month.
As you can see, once you get into the tall grass with mechanics liens, it becomes fairly complicated. It’s at this point that it may be time to consult legal counsel.

Lew Sichelman

Syndicated newspaper columnist, Lew Sichelman has been covering the housing market and all it entails for more than 50 years. He is an award-winning journalist who worked at two major Washington, D.C. newspapers and is a past president of the National Association of Real Estate Editors.