NerdWallet: Where to find extra money in your own budget

This article is reprinted by permission from NerdWallet.

You’re not the only one with a tight budget. Millions of Americans are currently struggling with unemployment, lost hours and lowered wages.

There’s little comfort in knowing that others are feeling strapped. But you may be relieved to hear there are ways to make things easier — even if you’re out of work or can’t make more money.

We talked to financial experts for advice about getting more mileage out of the money you have available right now. Here are their tips for finding extra money in your monthly budget.

Go line by line

Depending on where you live, you’re probably spending a lot of time at home these days. Devote at least some of the free time to analyzing your finances.

Go over every single transaction in your checking account, savings account, credit card bills and so forth, says Robinson Crawford, certified financial planner and founder of the adviser firm Montebello Avenue in Phoenix.

Crawford says you can use a budgeting system to make this step easier. Try an app, Excel file or some other tool.

Once you see all of the dollars going in and out, you’ll be able to identify areas for savings. And you’ll be ready to start making some (or all) of the changes outlined below.

Pick up the phone

As you look at your line items, focus on the largest bills first, suggests Cady North, CFP, founder of North Financial Advisors LLC, with offices in San Diego and Washington, D.C.

Lowering substantial, recurring payments has the potential to reap the biggest savings. For example, even if you already received an automatic rebate from your auto insurance company, it doesn’t hurt to call up and see if you can negotiate additional savings. That’s particularly applicable if you’re not driving right now.

Another option? If you have student loans, your federal student loan payment has likely already been suspended, but you’ll want to take the extra step to ensure you’ve stopped your automatic payments. That is, if you don’t want to continue making payments right now.

Also see: ‘Higher education essentially preserves intergenerational racial and class inequality’: How coronavirus could make it worse

If you choose to contact companies and service providers you do business with, be honest about how COVID-19 has affected you. Crawford recommends telling them about your situation and why you’re asking for help, especially if you’ve been laid off. They’re likely to empathize.

“Part of the reasoning should be, ‘Listen I’m trying to do everything to keep all of my bills paid. I want your service. I want to keep you. I want to stay as a customer.’”

Unplug and unsubscribe

After the big expenses, seal smaller holes in your spending. Try looking around your house, recommends Shehara L. Wooten, CFP, founder of investment adviser Your Story Financial LLC.

Unplug electronics when they’re not in use. Stop buying disposable paper towels and paper plates — switch to reusable towels and plates instead. Monitor the thermostat and lights as you spend increased amounts of time at home.

You can also pull the plug on unnecessary subscriptions. Crawford says now might be the right time to cancel those streaming services and online shopping memberships, especially ones you haven’t found use for even while you’ve been cooped up at home.

“If you’re not watching one of your streaming subscriptions during COVID, news flash: You’re never going to watch it.”

If you still like (and use) your subscriptions and aren’t willing to give them up completely, cut them out temporarily. Some companies allow you to go online and pause your account for a period of time.

“That’s a way to get $15, $20 here and there extra in your budget,” North says.

Get money back

Finally, while you may not be able to find a new job right now, there could still be methods to expand your budget that you hadn’t considered.

One way is to sign up for cash-back shopping sites or apps to earn money back when you purchase groceries and other essentials, Wooten points out. With some apps, you scan your receipt after a transaction for post-purchase savings.

Read: Strategies to attack debt, beef up savings, and prepare for another emergency

As you free up money, make sure you’re devoting those newfound funds to absolute necessities first, like food and shelter.

Every change you can make — no matter how major or minor — can make a difference.

More from NerdWallet:

Courtney Jespersen is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: courtney@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @CourtneyNerd.

Livability: Rethinking big city life? Here are 8 smaller places that still have the urban perks

Over the past few months, the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted many people to re-examine their living situations. Amid shutdowns, for instance, having easy access to open space — or a backyard at the very least — emerged as a new priority for many. Meanwhile, the economic turmoil accompanying the pandemic gave city-dwellers reason to question whether it’s really worth paying a premium to live in a big, crowded metropolis.

A recent national survey by Ipsos found that 42% of people have either moved or thought about moving since March, and rural areas, small and midsize cities were their top choices.

Becoming a suburbanite, or transitioning to small-town living, doesn’t mean you need to completely abandon life as an urbanite, though. Some of the country’s best small and midsize towns are within proximity of major metropolises. That means you can enjoy the wide open spaces and quaint downtowns, but still zip into the big city for amenities and attractions (when they reopen, of course) like pro sports, malls, museums and amusement parks.

Ahead, eight awesome small cities that are close to big cities — so you can enjoy the best of both worlds.

1. Castle Rock, Colorado (population, 64,827)

Proximity to Denver: 30 miles

A southern suburb of Denver, residents in Castle Rock enjoy wide open spaces (5,475 acres of it, to be exact) with the snow-capped Rocky Mountains serving up a glorious backdrop. Plus, the city sets itself apart with ultra unique amenities like “Challenge Hill,” an outdoor, 200-step incline (think: a stair stepper, but make it scenic), golf courses galore, horseback riding trails and a growing craft brewery scene. A straight shot north on I-25 takes you to Denver, where you’ll find restaurants captained by James Beard Award-winning chefs, more breweries, world-class museums, pro sports teams and funky dive bars dotting Colfax and Broadway.

2. Ann Arbor, Mich. (population, 113,998)

Proximity to Detroit: 45 miles

Ann Arbor, Michigan

iStock/Getty Images

Small town charm collides with collegiate charisma in Ann Arbor. Here, the beloved Literati Bookstore bestows upon the community a public typewriter where customers can write anonymous letters and inspiring messages. Installed on some businesses and homes are tiny fairy doors — architectural doubles of human-sized doors — to serve as portals for the mythical creatures bringing magic and whimsy to Ann Arbor.

Perusing the farmers markets, catching a festival or cheering on the Wolverines can easily fill up weekends in Ann Arbor, which you can rightfully call by its nickname, A-squared, once you live here. But in less than an hour, you can also be in downtown Detroit, enjoying an incredible arts scene and cultural gems like the Motown Museum and the General Motors Center for African American Art inside the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Also read: With New York City offices still closed, companies consider downsizing—or heading for the suburbs

For an architectural case study on the future of stadiums, pay a visit to Little Caesars Arena, where the Pistons and Red Wings play. The deconstructed layout allows for restaurants and retailers to be connected to the stadium, and remain open even when no games or concerts are scheduled.

3. Santa Fe, N.M. (population 84,612) 

Proximity to Albuquerque: 65 miles

Santa Fe, New Mexico

AFP/Getty Images

An artistic wonderland packed with art festivals, galleries and wildly inventive margaritas, Santa Fe has rightfully established itself as “The City Different.” Several time-honored traditions bring residents together here, including the Canyon Road Farolito Walk during Christmastime, Santa Fe Opera tailgating, and a consensus that green chile reigns supreme. But Santa Fe goes to bed pretty early, so if you’re looking for a night out on the town, slip away to downtown Albuquerque. Even better? A $10 train ticket can transport you between the two cities. With a population of 560,200, Albuquerque reigns as New Mexico’s biggest city. Old Town features dining and artisan shops, plus the city has a botanical garden, brewpubs in Nob Hill and a bona fide nightlife scene that keeps Central Ave. thrumming with youthful energy.

4. Gettysburg, Penn. (population: 7,633)

Proximity to Baltimore: 50 miles; proximity to Washington, D.C.: 80 miles; proximity to Philadelphia: 110 miles

You’re already familiar with Gettysburg because of its historical significance and its famed landmarks like Gettysburg National Military Park. But there’s plenty of farm-to-table bounty here, with unpretentious and delicious eateries and cideries. A regional Pie Trail epitomizes small town living, right? But the beauty of Gettysburg is that depending on which way you venture, you can end up in some of the East Coast’s biggest cities. The historic city is within proximity of Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia, so you’ll never run out of weekend getaways to experience big-city arts, culture and sports.

5. Asheville, N.C. (population: 92,452)

Proximity to Charlotte, N.C.: 120 miles

Asheville, North Carolina.

iStock

Tucked in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville excels when it comes to mountain town living. With a cool and laid-back persona, this North Carolina city is home to a highly regarded craft beer scene, plus there’s plenty of outdoor adventures (Hiking! Mountain biking! Whitewater rafting!). Residents here love dogs and have an appreciation for great food (nearby farms supply the bounty to restaurants). And as an added bonus, there’s very little traffic. Instead, jam out at one of the acclaimed live music venues. But when you’re craving a big city experience, Charlotte is 120 miles away and is bidding for attention. It’s home to the U.S. National Whitewater Center, a must-visit attraction for intrepid types to try out white-water courses on kayaks and rafts. Go on a self-guided barbecue tour, shop the 7th Street Public Market, and enjoy the nightlife. (We double-dare you to ride the mechanical bull at Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Whisky River.)

6. Hamilton, Ohio (population: 62,359) 

Proximity to Cincinnati: 17 miles; Proximity to Dayton: 32 miles

Over the past few years, Hamilton has pumped $65 million into its downtown, and the revitalization efforts are bringing about a thriving arts and culture scene and market-rate apartments. Residents here can enjoy a variety of public art sculptures, the 300-acre Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park & Museum, and jazz and comedy performances at the Fitton Center for Creative Arts. Seasonal festivals like IceFest, where ice sculptors chisel works of art out of blocks of ice, bring the community together even in the doldrums of winter. Located within the Cincinnati-Dayton metroplex, it’s easy to zip between the two big cities, whether it’s for a work commute or to enjoy a day exploring the bigger cities’ attractions like the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden.

See: 4 questions to ask before retiring to the suburbs

7. Franklin, Tenn.

Proximity to Nashville: 21 miles

One visit to Franklin makes it easy to see why this small city outside of Nashville is growing fast. Franklin has all the charm of a historic Southern town, including a seriously picturesque Main Street and downtown, friendly people and fantastic restaurants cooking up Tennessee favorites from scratch. But it’s also home to headquarters of major corporations like Nissan NSANY, -2.97% and Mars Petcare, which means residents have access to career opportunities they’d usually only find in a much bigger city. Living here means being just a short drive from Nashville’s world-famous music venues, but don’t discount the creative scene in Franklin — you don’t have to leave city limits to see up-and-coming artists at open mic nights or international superstars at Pilgrimage, a two-day music festival that draws acts like Justin Timberlake and the Foo Fighters.

Read: Americans are eyeing homes in the suburbs as pent-up demand hits housing market

8. Hood River, Ore. (population: 7,806)

Proximity to Portland, Ore.: 60 miles

Postcard-perfect, Hood River sits on the front porch of the Columbia River Gorge and the Cascade Range. The 35-mile Hood River Fruit Loop packs a lot of charm per square mile, with snow-capped peaks, orchards, lavender fields, fruit stands and alpacas. Plus, it’s the windsurfing capital of the world if you’re looking to take up a new socially distanced-approved hobby. An hour’s drive along I-84 will get you to Portland, where there’s plenty of coffeehouses, breweries and museums to explore. And, until you’re comfortable flying again, there’s an acclaimed Japanese Garden to help satiate your wanderlust.

Read the original article on Livability.

Mortgage rates keep falling to record lows — so is now a good time to refinance?

The coronavirus pandemic has led to a dramatic decline in mortgage rates. But that doesn’t mean now is a good time to refinance for everyone.

Last week, Freddie Mac FMCC, -0.94% reported that mortgage rates hit a new record low for the fourth time this year, with the average rate on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage dropping to 3.13%.

When rates hit their first record low of the year back in March, it triggered a deluge of refinancing activity just as many lenders were transitioning to remote work environments because of the spread of COVID-19. That led to a massive backlog at some lenders, with some borrowers waiting weeks to close their refinances.

Now, the market has settled down, and lenders have adapted to the coronavirus world. And the good news for borrowers is that most markets are served by mobile notary services, said Pat Stone, co-founder and chairman of title insurance company Williston Financial Group, and other states allow for entirely virtual mortgage processes. That means in most parts of the country getting a new home loan won’t mean risking your health, as infection rates remain stubbornly high in many areas.

Read more: Home prices continued to rise even as the coronavirus pandemic swept across America, FHFA says

But will refinancing your mortgage risk your financial health? Here’s what homeowners need to consider before closing on a new loan.

Figure out when you’ll break even

As a general rule of thumb, experts say that a refinance will be worthwhile if it will net a homeowner an interest rate between 50 and 75 basis points lower than their current mortgage’s rate. That’s because the reduced interest will compensate for the closing costs associated with the refinance.

But those savings don’t come immediately — it will take a few year before the savings via monthly payments accrue to outweigh the costs.

“If you’re in your forever home, it might make sense to refinance with a half-point rate decrease,” said Holden Lewis, home and mortgage expert at personal-finance website NerdWallet. “But if you plan to sell the home within five years or so, it’s most likely not worth it because you’ll pay more in fees than you would save during that time.”

‘If you’re in your forever home, it might make sense to refinance with a half-point rate decrease.’

— Holden Lewis, home and mortgage expert at personal-finance website NerdWallet
Pay attention to the loan’s term

Homeowners shouldn’t necessarily default to a 30-year loan, despite their popularity.

“Because rates have fallen so much you could probably get into a 15-year loan and maybe maintain or even still lower your monthly payment,” said Tendayi Kapfidze, chief economist at LendingTree TREE, -1.61% . “You’re going to pay off the loan sooner and you’re going to pay less interest.”

Choosing a shorter term has its trade-offs though, mortgage industry experts warn, if locking into such a loan means making larger monthly payments. The standard 30-year mortgage offers flexibility.

“You have the flexibility to pay extra every month when you can afford to, and you can cut back to the minimum required payment during insecure times,” Lewis said.

Don’t be afraid of closing costs

When doing your break-even analysis, don’t shy away from paying closing costs. While paying those costs upfront may seem like it’s making the refinance more expensive, in reality it could be saving you money.

“It’s always attractive to say ‘no cost,’ but you might end up paying for it over the life of the loan,” said Brian Koss, executive vice president of Mortgage Network, a Massachusetts-based lender. That’s because those costs don’t go away. Rather, they may be rolled into the loan’s balance, or lead to a higher interest rate.

Along those lines, you can prepay your interest by paying for mortgage points. The upfront cost, again, will be higher if you do this, but will save you thousands in interest.

The tumultuous economy has made it harder to qualify

As millions of Americans lost their jobs or were furloughed because of coronavirus-related business closures, lenders went into damage control mode. Many lenders raised the standards borrowers must meet to qualify for a new loan. This included higher minimum credit scores and lower debt-to-income ratios, among other factors.

The prospect of an imminent economic recovery is far from certain. While the job market has improved in recent weeks, some states that have reopened their economies have seen a surge in coronavirus cases.

‘It’s always attractive to say ‘no cost,’ but you might end up paying for it over the life of the loan.’

— Brian Koss, executive vice president of Mortgage Network

“The V-shaped bounce back was kind of a pipe dream in the first place, and it’s looking less and less likely, notwithstanding the recent strong data that we’ve seen,” Kapfidze said. “I’ve been anticipating that lenders are going to get more and more conservative and restrictive with their lending standards.”

If you were furloughed, laid off or if you’re self-employed, it could be harder to get approval for a refinance. In these cases, borrowers may have luck turning to their current lender for a refinance.

“Your current lender is heavily invested in you,” Kapfidze said. It will cost them money to lose business, so they may be willing to offer homeowners deals on refinancing.

If you received forbearance, you may hit roadblocks

The CARES Act let millions of Americans take advantage of the ability to claim forbearance from their mortgage payments.

But being in a forbearance plan could disqualify a homeowner from certain types of loans. If you skipped payments while in forbearance, you must make at least three current payments after ending the plan to be eligible for a refinance into a loan backed by Fannie Mae FNMA, -1.91% or Freddie Mac.

Also see:Americans are eyeing homes in the suburbs as pent-up demand hits housing market

But if you were one of the many Americans who requested forbearance but continued making payments, you will be eligible to refinance right away so long as you stay current on your loan.

Finally, don’t try to time the market

Yes, mortgage rates have fallen to a new record low multiple times this year. But there’s no guarantee that trend will continue.

“People are waiting for a rate a half a percent below where we are now relatively — that’s getting greedy,” Koss said.

There’s a significant upside risk to mortgage rates right now. Their recent drops have largely come after the stock and bond markets have responded to negative news about the coronavirus pandemic.

The potential for a second wave remains, and some states are seeing another surge of infections as part of the first wave of the outbreak. But health experts have suggested that a vaccine could come very soon, and researchers have several promising candidates for coronavirus treatments.

If a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19 is announced, that would likely cause markets to rally — and mortgage rates to rise in tandem.

“Don’t try to time the bottom, just pick the rate that makes the most sense,” Koss said.

Volatile markets haven’t deterred financial planners from making bold moves on behalf of their clients

A lot is being said about retail investors jumping into the stock market these days, but they might just be following the lead of financial advisers.

The high volatility on Wall Street in recent months hasn’t deterred some financial planners from making more stock investments for their clients, while others have taken the opposite approach, a new survey shows.

Forty-one percent of advisers said they’ve been increasing their clients’ equity exposure, and yet 31% said they’ve been reducing their clients exposure, according to a survey asking 870 advisers how they’ve been helping clients in the face of the coronavirus outbreak.

Even though the Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, -2.71% and the S&P 500 SPX, -2.58% have been on upswings since low points in late March, it hasn’t been a smooth ride.

Three quarters of the financial planners surveyed said they weren’t making big changes.

More than three-quarters (77%) said they only made minor modifications to their clients’ financial plans while 23% said the changes were “substantial.” On the whole, planners said they made changes for about 30% of their clientele.

Investment allocation was the most common change (62%) but it wasn’t the only one. For example, 59% said they discussed their client’s spending decisions and 43% said they changed tax strategies, given the unusual context.

The Treasury Department pushed the income tax return filing and payment deadline from April 15 to July 15 so households would have more cash on hand in early spring as unemployment rates surged. (As of May, the jobless rate was 13.3%.)

But the postponed deadline also presented an opportunity for financially secure households to put extra money into an individual retirement account and shrink their 2019 tax bill.

The stimulus bill passed in late March also allowed IRA owners to withdraw $100,000 this year and pay it back in three years without any consequence on future income tax returns — but it can get complicated, observers say.

Don’t miss:Opinion: COVID-19 crisis creates a perfect opportunity for Roth IRA conversions

Forty-one percent of advisors said they made changes to clients’ IRAs, Roth IRAs and other retirement accounts.

The same survey has a grim reminder that the flurry of financial advice is coming during a public health crisis. Twenty percent of the polled advisers said they’ve been helping their clients with estate planning changes and 12% said they’ve been weighing in on health care decisions.

As of Wednesday, the U.S. had 2.34 million confirmed coronavirus cases, according to the Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering. The virus had killed 478, 289 people globally, including 121,279 people in America.

The Moneyist: I hate that my friends still get help from their parents and were born into money. I want to stop comparing. How can I do this?

Dear Moneyist,

I am an avid reader of your column and have realized a pattern in myself that I am less than proud of. I am in my early 30s, and my partner is in her late 20s. We do well for ourselves, we travel, we aren’t struggling. I own a nice home in a town a few hours away that I rent out because I recently moved to the city.

We are renting in the city now to save money. We have a roommate, and I feel that some friends judge us for this. Our friends are successful and all around our age. They are building extravagant homes, making what I believe to be more money than us, and I can’t help but be green with envy and always comparing what they have to what we don’t.

Dispatches from a pandemic: Letter from New York: ‘New Yorkers wear colorful homemade masks, while nurses wear garbage bags’

I hate that my friends still get help from their parents and were born into money. They have no student-loan debt, one friend is a lawyer and her parents paid for that degree. One couple got their land for their home paid off by their family. I have had to work hard for everything I have in life, as well as my partner, and it’s just hard seeing them get ahead while we feel like we’re stagnant.

I want to be happy for them and stop comparing. How can I do this?

Feeling Green

Dear Green,

Your feelings about your friends are as real as your feeling that they’re judging you for having a roommate. They are as real as you believe them to be. While you reflect upon your own relatively modest circumstances, I would bet that your lodger is the last thing on their minds.

We all belong to infinitesimally small social groups: our family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, school friends and/or college alumni. Regaining perspective on your life and your finances is sometimes a more difficult task than it sounds. Do we look beyond our neighborhood, social group, country or need to fly to the moon? It’s better to look inward than beyond the garden gate.

The Green-Eyed Monster likely resides somewhere in your past. On an intellectual level, you know that this has zero to do with how you feel about your friends: You clearly wish them well. Nor does it have anything to do with how they feel about you: They likely admire you for reasons you have never considered. This has everything to do with how you feel about yourself.

Regaining perspective on your life is sometimes a more difficult task than it sounds. Do we look beyond our neighborhood, social group, country or need to fly to the moon?

Each one of these groups can make us feel “high status” or “low status.” That’s an exercise I learned as a kid in drama school. We’d each take turns being the snooty shopkeeper and nervous customer. But this scenario plays out in real life, too. Here’s the weird part: We can read about Hollywood actors or people who have valiantly survived some terrible calamity, and feel curiously numb.

Movie stars may have a $20 million Beverly Hills home, but they make up a constellation of Greek gods, right? We are merely orbiting their firmament. Why on earth would we or they feel wanton? Surely, they don’t have real problems. And people who earn less in a month than some Americans do in an hour ? They’re a world away from our experiences, aren’t they?

Don’t miss:‘We will not have a vaccine by next winter.’ Like the 1918 Spanish flu, CDC says second wave of coronavirus could be worse. So what happens now?

The more we have, the more we feel like we don’t have enough. And we’re all chasing something. That’s why they call it a rat race. Rats are not the most delicate of creatures, but they sure know how to run. “Our sense of an appropriate limit to anything — for example, to wealth and esteem — is never decided independently,” the philosopher Alain de Botton writes in his book “Status Anxiety.”

That treatise chops, dices and vacuum packs the age-old malady of consumerism, and how we all compare ourselves to others. “It is decided by comparing our condition with that of a reference group, with that of people we consider to be our equals. We cannot appreciate what we have in isolation, nor judged against the lives of our medieval forbearers,” Botton adds.

This status consciousness starts with our siblings getting a bigger dollop of ice cream or the largest dinner plate, and ends up with us grumbling about the annex on our neighbor’s house.

“If we have a pleasant home and comfortable job, however, but learn through ill-advised attendance at a school reunion that some of our old friends (there is no stronger reference group) are now living in houses larger than our own, bought on the proceeds of more enticing occupations, we are likely to return home nursing a violent sense of misfortune,” he writes.

“It is the feeling that we might be something other than what we are — a feeling transmitted by the superior achievements of those we take to be our equals — that generates anxiety and resentment,” he adds. “If we are small and live among people who are all of own height, we will not be unduly troubled by questions of size.”

What do I do to right-size myself? When I lived in London in my 20s, I visited the National Portrait Gallery when I was feeling blue. I would gaze at people who lived hundreds of years ago: Peasants, royalty, aristocrats or, perhaps, a portrait of a young man sitting wistfully in a window contemplating nothing but the day. It always put my own trials and tribulations in perspective.

I felt grateful to have leisure time that a textile worker during the Industrial Revolution could only dream of. Time is the most valuable commodity we have. It’s a brutal wake-up call, and a useful reminder that this “compare and despair” does not always change along with our improved circumstances.

This status consciousness starts with our siblings getting a bigger dollop of ice cream or the largest dinner plate, and ends up with us grumbling about the annex on our neighbor’s house. Call up one of your wealthy friends, and ask them how they’re doing. And then call up another friend who has far less than you. You may be surprised to discover that they have a lot in common.

The Moneyist: My son is staying with me, yet my financially irresponsible ex-husband received his $500 stimulus check. Is my ex right to keep it?

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at qfottrell@marketwatch.com. Want to read more?Follow Quentin Fottrell on Twitterand read more of his columns here

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Hello there, MarketWatchers. Check out the Moneyist private Facebook FB, -3.39% group where we look for answers to life’s thorniest money issues. Readers write in to me with all sorts of dilemmas. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.