MONEY Love + Money

5 Super Easy Online Tools that Can Help Couples Feel More Financially Secure

hearts made out of money
iStock

Can't seem to get on the same page with your partner when it comes to money? Help has arrived.

In order to achieve common goals, getting on the same financial page with your romantic partner is critical—but it’s also challenging.

As our own MONEY survey recently revealed, a majority of married couples (70%) argue about money. Financial spats are, in fact, more frequent than disagreements over chores, sex and what’s for dinner.

The Internet can offer some strategic intervention. From budgeting to paying off debt, saving to credit awareness, these five online financial tools can help everyone—and, in particular, couples—get a better handle on their money.

The best part: They’re free.

1. For help reaching a goal: SmartyPig

SmartyPig is an FDIC-insured online savings account that—besides paying a top-of-the-heap 1% interest rate—is designed to help consumers systematically save up for specific purchases using categorized accounts like “college savings,” “summer vacation” or “new car.” Couples can link their existing bank accounts to one shared SmartyPig account and open up as many goal-oriented funds as they desire. You see exactly where you stand in terms of reaching your goals, which can motivate you to keep saving.

Additionally, SmartyPig has a social sharing tool that lets customers invite friends and family to contribute to their savings missions. Don’t want people to bring gifts to your child’s next birthday? In lieu of toys, you can suggest a ‘contribution’ to his SmartyPig music-lessons fund and provide the link to where they can transfer money.

2. For help boosting your credit scores: Credit.com

If you and your partner need to improve one—or both—of your credit scores and seek clarity on how, Credit.com can help. The Web site offers a free credit report card that assigns letter grades to each of the main factors that make up your score: payment history, debt usage, credit age, account mix and credit inquiries.

A side-by-side comparison of each person’s credit report card can—even if the scores are roughly the same—actually reveal that one spouse scored, say, a D for account inquiries, while the other has a C- under debt usage. From there you can tell what, specifically, each person needs to improve upon. “It may lead to some friendly competition,” says Gerri Detweiler, Director of Consumer Education at Credit.com.

3. For help tracking your expenses: Level Money

Called the “Mint for Millennials,” Level Money is a cash-flow-management mobile app that automatically updates your credit, debt and banking transactions and gives a simple, real-time overview of your finances. It includes a “money meter” that shows how much you have left to spend for the remainder of the day, week and month.

A spokesperson tells me that couples with completely combined finances can share a Level Money account and see all bank and credit card accounts in one place. They can get insight into when either partner spends money and how that affects cash flow. The company says it’s continuing to build out tools for couples.

4. For help eliminating debt: ReadyForZero

If you and your partner need some nudging to get out of credit card debt once and for all, ReadyForZero may be of service. Launched three years ago, it’s an online financial tool that aims to help people pay off debt faster and protect their credit. The free membership gets you a personalized debt-reduction plan with suggested payments. The site tracks your progress so you can see how well—or how poorly—you’re doing and regularly posts “success stories” on its site to motivate users. You also get access to the ReadyForZero mobile app which sends you push notifications suggesting an extra payment towards your balance if you just placed a larger than normal deposit in savings or checking.

For couples, the tool can help one or both partners to stop living in denial and to come to terms with their financial obligations. Says CEO Rod Ebrahimi, “it demystifies the debt.”

5. For help syncing up generally: Cozi

When I asked attendees at the annual Financial Bloggers Conference last month about what sites, apps and online tools they like to use to keep their finances in check in their relationships, a few pointed to the website and app Cozi. It’s not a financial tool per se, but Cozi helps households stay organized, informed and in sync with master calendars and household to-do’s like food and meal planning, shopping and appointments.

Want to schedule a meeting to talk about holiday gifting and how much to spend? Put in in Cozi. Want to plan meals for the week so you’ll know exactly what to buy at the market and not be tempted to order in? Tap Cozi to make a list.

Ashley Barnett who runs the blog MoneyTalksCoaching.com says she and her husband have been using Cozi for years. “My favorite part is that the calendar syncs across all devices, so when I enter an event into the calendar, my husband will also have it on his,” she says. Cozi’s actually gone so far as helping the couple minimize childcare costs. “Before Cozi, if I accidentally booked a meeting on a night my husband was working late, I had to either pay a sitter or reschedule the client, which is unprofessional and hurts my business,” says Barnett. “Now when I pull up my calendar I see his work schedule as well. No more surprise sitters needed!”

[Editor's Note: Cozi was recently acquired by Time Inc., the company that owns MONEY and TIME.]

Farnoosh Torabi is a contributing editor at Money Magazine and the author of the new book When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women. She blogs at www.farnoosh.tv

MONEY Credit

WATCH: Credit Score Calculations Just Changed In Your Favor

FICO is decreasing the impact of medical debt on credit scores, which should make it easier for consumers to get loans.

MONEY Credit

Here’s Why Your Credit Score Is About To Improve

Sunlight coming out from behind a cloud
A Schneider Mark—Getty Images

Unpaid medical bills will carry less weight on FICO scores -- and late bills that get paid off won't count at all.

A change in the way credit scores are calculated means consumers may soon have an easier time getting a loan and could begin paying lower interest rates on their credit cards.

Fair Isaac, the company behind the widely used FICO credit scores, announced Thursday that it will no longer reduce a consumer’s score for late bill payments if those bills have been paid off.

It will also reduce the impact of unpaid medical bills on FICO scores. Under the new model, which will become available this fall, consumers with a median credit score would generally see their score rise by 25 points if their only major late payment is an unpaid medical debt.

“The new ruling looks great,” says Credit.com’s Gerri Detweiler. “These are changes consumers and consumer advocates have been hoping for for a long time. The one big warning is that these changes won’t happen over night.”

The changes comes after May report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that consumer credit scores are “overly penalized” for medical debt, which it said often does not accurately reflect their credit worthiness.

“Getting sick or injured can put all sorts of burdens on a family, including unexpected medical costs. Those costs should not be compounded by overly penalizing a consumer’s credit score,” said CFPB director Richard Cordray in a statement at the time. “Given the role that credit scores play in consumers’ lives, it’s important that they predict the creditworthiness of a consumer as precisely as possible.”

It also comes two weeks after the release of a study by the Urban Institute found that more than 35% of Americans have debt that has been reported to collection agencies.

Related:

9 Ways to Outsmart Debt Collectors

Money 101: What is my credit score and how is it calculated?

Everything You Need to Know About Managing Credit and Debt

MONEY mortgages

Getting a Mortgage Is Growing Easier

A new report shows credit is more available for homebuyers- even for the self-employed, a group that has previously had trouble securing loans.

Being approved for a mortgage has gotten a little easier for consumers with good credit, according to a recent report from the Federal Reserve. The bad news is that standards are still tighter than pre-recession levels, and banks won’t be further loosening them for a while.

The July report, which surveys senior loan officers about their banks’ lending practices, shows almost one-fourth—23.9%—of all banks eased their credit standards in the last three months for borrowers with solid credit and incomes. According to the Wall Street Journal, this is the largest such action by lenders since the financial crisis.

Keith Gumbinger, vice president at mortgage research firm HSH, says that while loans can still be difficult for some consumers to get, banks are approving borrowers with slightly lower credit scores. Previously, Gumbinger says, banks required a FICO score of about 640 to approve a loan backed by the Federal Housing Administration, called an FHA loan. Now applicants with scores as low as 600 are getting the green light.

In July Wells Fargo lowered the minimum credit score needed for a jumbo loan to 700, down from 720, according to Reuters. Jumbo mortgages are generally necessary for consumers who need to borrow more than $417,000. Most banks have stricter requirements for jumbos than they do for smaller loans.

What’s behind the easing? In short, banks are becoming less paranoid. Technically, the government will underwrite FHA loans given to those with credit scores as low as 580. However, banks are reluctant to lend to borrowers with such low scores because a certain number of defaults will cause the feds to pull their backing. As a result, many lenders require FICO scores above those minimums, or other additional requirements—collectively known as “overlays”—to make sure that doesn’t happen.

What’s more, in recent months housing prices have been going up. “If you’re a lender and you make a loan to someone when home prices are rising, and [the loan] fails, well then congratulations,” Gumbinger jokes.

One group benefitting from the changes is the self-employed, who tend to have fluctuating incomes. Since the housing crash, this group has found it extremely difficult to get credit because their unconventional or inconsistent income streams failed to meet the Qualified Mortgage standard that protects banks in case a loan goes south. As a result, lenders willing to give out non-QM loans had been demanding down payments as high as 35%, even from borrowers with a relatively high FICO score. Gumbinger says lenders are now more willing to look for other positive qualities, like a large number of assets or equities, or a higher credit score, instead of asking for huge sums of money up front.

The loosening is good for prospective homebuyers who previously may have just missed most banks’ credit cut-off. What’s not good is there’s not much room to go from here in terms of lowering credit standards further. Banks theoretically have wide latitude to change requirements, and as housing prices go up they may loosen them further, but the primary determinant of who can get a loan are the credit limits set by government mortgage backers who securitize most of the mortgage industry.

Those limits are set by politicians, not bankers, and asking the voting public to allow less dependable mortgages is not exactly an easy sell, especially since bad loans helped cause the financial crisis.

“You’re the head of the [Federal Housing Finance Agency], you lost billions and recovered billions, do you go stand before the American people and say in order to save the housing market we need riskier loans?” asks Gumbinger. “You may not want to put the American taxpayer at risk.”

Related: MONEY 101’s How to Get the Best Rate on a Mortgage

Related: MONEY 101’s How to Improve your Credit Score

MONEY Love and Money

How Talking about Credit Scores Can Improve Your Marriage

Lots of cash
iStock

Survey finds that financial responsibility is one of the most important qualities people look for in a spouse.

This article was originally published on AllYou.com and was written by Jennifer Liu.

You’ve met the parents, survived a combined family holiday, traded embarrassing childhood memories, and are ready to start a life together. But before you hop over to complete your wedding registry, you might want to check out your future life-partner’s credit score.

That’s right—according to an Experian Consumer Services survey, half of married adults say that credit scores were important to them when choosing a spouse. In fact, financial responsibility ranked number two as the most important attribute in a spouse, second only to personal compatibility. Even physical attractiveness and career ambition came after a person’s ability to balance a checkbook.

The survey also measured what kind of shared goals spouses found to be important to maintain a compatible relationship. Having similar financial goals ranked number three in the survey, even above compatibility in sex and intimacy or religion and spirituality. The full list includes:

1. Family goals
2. Life goals
3. Finances
4. Sex and intimacy
5. Career goals
6. Religion sand spirituality
7. Politics

“Survey findings show that once someone identifies a compatible partner, his or her next thought is about how that person manages personal finances, and credit plays a key role in that scenario,” says Ken Chaplin, senior vice president at Experian Consumer Services. “This holds true for both genders, and the study further shows that working toward compatible financial goals matters to the vast majority of married adults.”

For those of you who might shy away from financial talk, consider this: The survey indicates that 73% of women and 60% of men state that having a partner who openly communicates about personal finances and credit makes him/her more attractive. Talking about credit is especially important when the couple is securing a home loan, applying for interest rates and securing a loan to buy a car. Just a few of many examples proving that in relationships, marriage especially, communication is key. Don’t believe it? Couples married for more than 20 years who participated in the survey reported that credit plays an instrumental role in marriage.

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Check out these other articles from AllYou.com:

How to Navigate Grocery Stores—and Save Big

13 Part-Time Jobs with Full-Time Perks

Free Health Programs at 6 Supermarkets

TIME

Millennials Have No Idea How Credit Scores Work

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courtneyk—Getty Images

Millennials have a reputation for being pretty savvy with technology and social media—not to mention their finances—but today’s young adults are clueless when it comes to knowledge of their credit.

A new study conducted by the Consumer Federation of America and VantageScore Solutions finds that 18-34 year-olds lag behind older Americans on credit knowledge. Not that older generations are whiz kids when it comes to credit—just over 40% of consumers surveyed even know what their credit score measures, for instance—but millennials have the dubious distinction of being even less-informed than other age groups.

Only around half of millennials have ever even bothered to order a free copy of their credit report, as compared to about three-quarters of older people surveyed.

They’re more likely to think age plays a role in credit scoring, that the government keeps track of consumer credit data and that credit repair services can legitimately fix your credit (by and large, they can’t). And while most of them know that a lot of credit card debt, declaring bankruptcy and missing payments can affect their credit, only 6% got everything right when they picked from a list of factors that could potentially impact their score.

Young adults have a pretty poor grasp on how far-reaching this impact is: Only 18 percent knew that utility companies, cell phone carriers, mortgage lenders and home insurers, landlords and credit card companies can all use a consumer’s credit when doing business with them.

They’re also unaware of the financial consequences of bad credit. Just 15% knew that a bad credit score could cost more than $5,000 in higher interest payments over the life of a car loan.

One factor that seems to make a difference in how much credit knowledge people have is whether or not they’ve actually gotten their free credit report (if you’re one of the many who haven’t, you can do so at annualcreditreport.com). Interestingly, people who got their credit reports knew more than those who had just gotten their credit scores.

“Those who are interested in their credit reports are probably also interested in their credit scores,” CFA executive director Stephen Brobeck says in a statement. “It’s so easy to go online and get your free reports that this action likely motivates people to learn more about credit scores.”

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