Riding out the financial storm

When the editors of Consumer Reports asked Americans what they’re most worried about now, the answer was loud and clear: having enough money to retire, the value of their savings and home and the cost of everything from gas to college.
A third of you said you’re worse off today than a year ago — nearly double last year’s figure, according to CR’s nationally representative poll of 1,004 adults.
The results also showed the belt tightening over the past year: 56 percent of respondents indicated that they cut back on entertainment and eating out, 53 percent reduced credit card spending, and 50 percent planned to cut down on holiday spending.
Women were more concerned about personal finance issues than men and were more likely to have curbed spending habits in several areas, including spending less on entertainment and eating out, reducing credit-card spending, postponing home-improvement projects and putting off big purchases for the home.
To help consumers get through these uncertain times, CR offers strategies to weather the financial storm.
Home ownership concerns
Q: How difficult will it be for someone who wants to buy a home soon to get a mortgage?
A: A lot tougher than it used to be. Two years ago, it was possible to buy a home without proof of income or a penny down. Now submitting W-2s and tax returns is probably required, along with making a down payment of 20 or even 30 percent. Individuals won’t qualify if their mortgage payments would exceed 43 percent of their monthly pre-tax pay; in the boom, payments were allowed to be as high as 55 percent.
CR’s advice: Anyone with a credit score below 720 should try to boost it by paying down other debt and correcting any errors on their credit reports. Save for a bigger down payment. Include some local banks in the search for the best terms; they have been less affected by the mortgage meltdown.
Credit concerns
Q: What will be the effect of having a credit card’s limit lowered?
A: Aside from the fact that the cardholder won’t be allowed to borrow as much on that card, a lowered credit limit could result in added fees for someone who makes a purchase that puts them over that amount. An individual’s credit score could also be negatively affected, since the ratio of debt to available credit will go up.
CR’s advice: Anyone who carries a balance on their credit card shouldn’t let it run higher than 30 percent of their limit. Open all mail from the card company to stay on top of account changes. If your credit limit has been reduced or the interest rate was raised, ask the card issuer for a waiver. It might be necessary to go beyond customer service and speak with a manager.
Retirement concerns
Q: What can someone whose 401(k) is down do to rebuild retirement savings?
A: For anyone who is at least five years from retirement, there’s probably time for their investments to right themselves.
CR’s advice: Resist the urge to take money out of a 401(k) or to stop making contributions to it. Research by the Consumer Reports Money Lab has shown that dollar-cost averaging — investing at given intervals — pays off well in times of crisis. Check whether the wild market swings have thrown off the asset allocation — the specific mix of stocks and bonds that makes sense for an individual’s financial goals and risk tolerance. If so, rebalance it by selling shares in assets that are overweighted and buying those that are below optimal levels. Focus on low-cost investments. In good times and bad, high fees and trading commissions whittle away at money. Index mutual funds typically have lower expenses than actively managed ones.
Visit the Consumer Reports Web site at www.consumerreports.org.

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