Knowing what you don’t know—but should—is a key first step in improving your personal finances.
For example, what’s your mortgage rate? In a new Bankrate.com survey of 1,000 consumers, 35 percent said they “aren’t completely sure.” Not knowing that information is problematic, said Greg McBride, senior financial analyst at Bankrate.com. “That’s your cost of borrowing,” he said. “It tells you when to refinance.” If you don’t know your rate, that savings opportunity might pass you by.
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Experts say there are a number of similar questions that consumers ought to be able to answer offhand about their personal finances–but often, can’t. Figuring out the answers can help you make smarter financial moves:
1. Am I being paid fairly?
“Everyone should understand their worth in the job market,” said Lydia Frank, editorial director for salary estimator Payscale.com. Knowing what other people at your skill level are being paid tells you what salary to request while job hunting, and when to ask for a raise at your current job. The answer might surprise you. “It’s not always that you need to march right out and ask for a raise,” said Frank. “We find that a lot of people believe that they’re underpaid and are not.” If that’s the case, it can provide a measure of comfort—or maybe impetus to boost your skills and justify an increase.
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2. How does my homeowners’ (or renters’) policy value possessions?
The key terms to look for are cash value or replacement value, said Loretta Worters, a vice president for the Insurance Information Institute, an industry group. The former costs less, but only reimburses you for the item’s current, depreciated value—which may not be much. “A couch today is $2,000 or $3,000 for a decent one, but if you’ve had yours for 10 years or more, you might only get $100, because it’s old,” she said. That valuation is an important distinction when comparing policies and deciding when to file a claim, whether you need to replace one stolen item or a whole household’s worth damaged in a fire or natural disaster.
3. What are the terms of my mortgage?
Learning your rate is important, but so are the terms. “Prior to the housing bust, fewer than 40 percent of homeowners knew what type of mortgage they had,” said McBride. If it’s not a fixed rate, he said, “then you want to know how much your current rate can change and when.” That can help you avoid a surprise spike in the bill when an adjustable-rate product resets, or decide when it’s appropriate to refinance to a different type of mortgage.
4. What’s my credit card rate?
“If you’re not paying your balance in full, you have to ask yourself what your interest rate is,” said Nicholas Clements, co-founder of MagnifyMoney.com. Credit card debt is typically the highest-rate debt you’ll have, he said, and that cost can be surprising for “accidental borrowers” who only occasionally carry a balance. It’s not unusual to see rates exceeding 20 percent for store credit cards. And if you’ve been late on a payment, sky-high penalty rates may have kicked in, Clements said. A too-high rate can tell you it’s time to shop around for a new card, or crunch the numbers on a balance transfer offer.
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5. What’s my credit card rewards rate?
If you pay off your balance in full each month, make sure the rewards earned over the course of a year offset fees paid, said Brian Karimzad, co-founder of MagnifyMoney.com. “I think a lot of people will be surprised to see they ended up in the red,” he said. (Most points and miles are worth about a penny at redemption. So getting say, one point per dollar spent on a card that costs $95 a year would require charging as much as $9,500 just to break even that year.) You might want to cancel that card in favor of one that’s more rewarding, or shift spending from another card to maximize rewards.
6. How good is my credit score?
Even if you’re not hunting for a mortgage or preparing to buy a car, this three-digit number typically ranging from 300 to 850 (the higher, the better) is a key one to know. “You need to be aware of this because your existing creditors are aware of it,” said John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education for CreditSesame.com. A poor score can be justification enough for credit card or insurance rate increases. If it’s unexpectedly bad, that can be an indicator of errors or identity theft on your credit reports.
7. When will my emergency fund run out?
Ideally, you have at least three to six months’ worth of living expenses set aside in a savings account. The reality: Six in 10 Americans don’t have enough to cover an unexpected emergency of as little as $500, according to Bankrate.com. Figure out how long your savings would last if you had a job loss by dividing that amount by your monthly total for nondiscretionary expenses like mortgage payments, childcare expenses and utility bills, said McBride. “This tells you how long you could pay the bills if the paychecks stop,” he said—and how much more you should have saved if the savings won’t go far.
8. How much am I paying in bank fees?
Start shopping for a better deal if that figure is higher than zero. “Checking accounts should be completely free,” said Clements. “If you’re paying any fees at all, you’re making a suboptimal choice.” The big three to watch out for: maintenance fees, ATM fees and overdraft fees. Maintenance fees can often be avoided with direct deposit or keeping a minimum deposit in the account, he said, while overdrafts can be limited by telling the bank to decline debit card transactions that would overdraw your account. To avoid ATM fees, pick a bank that either reimburses fees or has branches near your work and home. “That’s just a silly place to spend money,” he said.