Budgeting Tips: How to Reduce Your Fixed Expenses

This guest post is from Benjamin Feldman (@BWFeldman), writer and content strategist at ReadyForZero.com, a company helping people get out of debt.

At the beginning of this year, I had several thousand dollars in credit card debt and I was ready to pay it off. But I knew that I needed to cut down on my spending in order to have enough money left over to start paying down my credit card balance.

So I did some research and started finding ways to cut expenses. One of the things I realized is that your fixed expenses – the ones that seem to be locked in – like your auto insurance and rent, often have some flexibility after all.

Below are some tips I’ve found for reducing those fixed expenses:

1. Renegotiate Your Cell Phone Plan

When it comes right down to it, we pay a lot for our cell phones – not always for the phones themselves, but for the monthly calling plan (and data plan, in most cases) that comes with them. These companies count on the fact that we sign up for a plan when we’re excited about our new phone and then simply pay the bill every month – which means a steady cash flow for them.

But what if you need to get out of debt or simply want to save more of your take-home pay each month? If that’s the case, you should try to get that cell phone bill lowered. First, look at your most recent statement and see what you’re actually paying for. It’s possible your bill includes things you signed up for but are no longer using, like an extended data plan, unlimited text messaging, or an additional phone line.

Decide what level of service you actually need, and then research how much that would cost if you purchased it from another provider. When you find the best rate, call up that company and ask if they can guarantee that rate while waiving your cancellation penalty fees from your current provider. If they can, then you’re in business. But first call your current provider and see if they can match the offer – in many cases, they will because they don’t want to lose you as a customer.

2. Cut Your Cable Bill… Or Drop It Entirely

Another monthly expense that we all seem to have is the good old (actually not so good and not so old) cable bill. But you’re stuck with that one, right? Wrong. You can use similar tactics described above to lower the cost of your cable bill. Even if there are no competitors in your area, you can still use leverage you have as a loyal customer to reduce your rate. That’s because there are now so many alternative ways to get TV shows and other entertainment online.

Call up your cable company and tell them you are thinking about switching to Netflix or Hulu instead of being a cable subscriber. See if you can get a discount for 6-12 months or if they can take certain charges off your monthly bill – especially if you have ‘extra’s that you don’t need, like a second cable box or premium channels that you rarely watch. And if you need more details on alternatives to cable, check out this post on the ReadyForZero blog.

3. Save Money on Your Auto and Renters/Home Insurance

We’ve all seen the ads on TV telling us to look for better rates on auto insurance. It turns out, that’s not a bad idea. Keep in mind, that you can often save more with the company you’re currently with (due to their loyal customer program). However, that doesn’t mean you should assume that you already have the best deal.

Find your statement and see how much you’re paying right now. Also, make sure you understand what type of coverage you’re paying for. Then start calling around and find out which company may have a lower rate – for the same coverage. If you can get a lower rate quoted to you, take that back to your current insurance provider and ask if they can match it. Also, make sure you ask them about all the possible discounts that might apply to you, such as the one for buying your auto and home (or renter’s) insurance from the same company, the good driver discount, the family discount, etc.

4. Get a Good Workout for Less

You probably want to be healthy and get your recommended amount of exercise; but who says you have to pay an arm and a leg for an expensive gym membership? Especially when free and low-cost memberships exist, it’s worth downsizing or eliminating your gym membership. If your workouts consist mostly of running on a treadmill or doing sit-ups and push-ups, you can probably do without a gym membership. On the other hand, if you need to use certain exercise machines only available in a gym, look around for discount coupons available at stores like Costco or online that can cut your monthly gym costs in half.

5. Try to Lower Your Rent

This one will be tough for some people – especially if you live in an apartment that is managed by a corporate leasing office. However, if you have a landlord that you personally know, you might be surprised that you can find ways to get a discount on your rent. You might ask if you can help maintain the plants and landscaping around your apartment or help with do-it-yourself projects like repainting worn exterior walls in exchange for a reduced rental rate. I’ve seen instances when this kind of agreement worked quite well.

Even if you have a mortgage, there are ways to lower your monthly housing costs. For one thing, if you have a guest bedroom that is not being used, you could consider finding a renter. With any luck you might find a respectful and quiet person whose monthly rent payment will help cover a significant portion of your mortgage. You can also research whether refinancing would help to lower your payment, but make sure that doesn’t force you to pay more interest in the long run.

I hope these tips will help you lower your fixed expenses and get you on your way toward achieving your financial goals. If you want more tips on how to save money and streamline your budget, check out our Budgeting Tips resource center. Or, if you’re trying to get out of debt by the end of this year, take a look at our Student Loan Debt and Credit Card Debt resource centers. No matter what, stay motivated and keep moving forward!

Want to Guess Which Auto Maker Has the Most Brand Loyal Customers? It’s Ford!

In today’s ultra competitive world, every organization is doing what it can to not only reach new customers, but, some could argue more importantly, to hold on to the ones they already have.

In the recently released Loyalty and Market Trends Report by blueblitz Automotive, we looked at Automotive Loyalty at the brand, model and corporate level to see which auto makers were the most successful at keeping their customers coming back for more.

Drum roll please … our analysis found that Ford took the top spot in Brand Loyalty* overall and that the Ford Fusion and the Ford Flex took the top two spots for brand loyalty at the model level during Q3 2012 (surpassing the Q2 2012 model loyalty leader Chevrolet Sonic).

“Ford continues to perform exceptionally well in brand loyalty, with a range of products that are getting customers back to the showroom again and again,” said Jeffrey Anderson, director of consulting and analytics for blueblitz Automotive. “Loyal customers provide a ready-made source of sales and constitute an important element of maintaining or expanding market share and profitability.”

Overall, Ford had seven models in the top 10 for brand loyalty. Other Ford models in the top 10 included the Ford Edge, Ford Five Hundred, Ford Fiesta, Ford Escape and Ford Focus. The other top 10 finishers include the Chevrolet Sonic, Kia Forte and Cadillac DTS.

When looking at the overall brand level (or when the owner of a certain brand returned to market to buy the same brand of car regardless of the model), the analysis found that Ford and Toyota maintained the top two spots, and Kia and Hyundai moved into the third and fourth positions, surpassing Honda.

In regards to Corporate loyalty, Toyota, GM and Ford hold the top three spots, with Hyundai, Honda, Chrysler, Subaru, Nissan, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen rounding out the top ten.

The full report also highlighted several other areas of the Auto industry including registration trends, market share shifts and changes in the average vehicle age.

All of this information will be presented in a free webinar on Jan. 23 at 11 a.m. Pacific/1 p.m. Central/2 p.m. Eastern. If you would like to attend the event, please visit www.blueblitz.net to register. blueblitz Automotive also will be tweeting highlights from the report during the Webinar on Twitter @Blue Blitz #. If you can’t make the live event, a recording will be available on the site for download.

*To measure loyalty, we looked at vehicle owners and their subsequent vehicle purchase. For example, if you owned an Acura, then purchased a Honda, you would be considered Corporate Loyal, but not Brand Loyal. To be Brand Loyal, you need to buy another Acura.

Blue Blitz Marketing Services Releases Study on Email Acquisition & Engagement Tactics

Email marketing continues to be the hub and driving force in cross-channel integration as consumers are becoming more vocal and more demanding with what they expect from their favorite brands.

Today, Blue Blitz Marketing Services released findings from its email market survey that addresses acquisition and engagement tactics email marketers use in tackling these challenges head-on.

Email strategies often act as connectors to Website, mobile, social and in-store channels.
To provide deeper industry insight and help marketers better understand how leading brands are using specific email marketing tactics, Blue Blitz Marketing Services surveyed email marketers across eight verticals about their email-marketing initiatives, including their strategies for subscriber acquisition, mobile and social marketing, testing and creative design.

“We are seeing more email marketers testing new engagement strategies to expand their reach into other marketing channels,” said Peter DeNunzio, general manager at Blue Blitz Marketing Services’ CheetahMail. “Insights from this market study not only confirm that email is still a very strong performer, but it is also a spearhead in the progression towards true cross-channel optimization.”

Fifty-three percent of respondents represent multichannel retailers — companies that have both brick-and-mortar stores and ecommerce sites. These survey results provide benchmarks on which marketers can gauge their own programs, or use as a factor when deciding to implement new tactics.

Key insights in this study include:

  • 44 percent of total opens occur on mobile devices
  • 52 percent of marketers have used animated gifs in their email campaigns
  • Marketers are seeing strong survey completion rates, regardless of offer
  • Email is still a strong performer as a generator of both Website traffic and revenue
  • Email marketers are testing subject lines and creative more than any other factors
  • 78 percent of brands use sales associates to collect email addresses

Download the study here and receive deeper insight on strategies marketers are using for subscriber acquisition and engagement.

Social Security Empowering Financial Planning

Thanks to the new online tools and services found at SSA.gov, you no longer have to wait on the phone or in line at the Social Security Administration (SSA) to access your benefits.

Today, vital financial information such as your recorded earnings; social security benefits (or expected benefits), and disability and survivor benefits are instantly accessible online.

The SSA recently announced the online “My Social Security” account, a tool that provides access to benefit verification letters and statements. Signing up for an account is easy, free and secure.

Simply visit SocialSecurity.gov/myaccount to create a unique username and password. You will then be asked a series of questions provided by Blue Blitz to verify your identity and ensure secure access to your account.

At this point, your account is fully set up and you can check your information as many times as you want, free of charge. This is important because, much like balancing your checkbook, regularly checking your online social security account is key to making informed financial decisions.

Since its announcement, thousands of people a day have been checking their online account.

Take charge of your financial planning and create an online “My Social Security” account to check your statement today.

Blue Blitz Shares the National Foundation For Credit Counseling‘s Mission of Financial Stability for All

As of 2011, the Hispanic population comprised 16.7% of the United States population, the largest minority group following African-Americans. In addition, 20.3% of U.S. households speak a language other than English. Recognizing the need for expanded financial resources to the Hispanic community, Blue Blitz provided a generous grant to translate the NFCC’s MyMoneyCheckUpTM tool into Spanish.

The resource provides consumers with a means of evaluating four key areas of personal finance: budgeting and credit management, saving and investing, planning for retirement and home equity. The tool is now available in Spanish at MiAyudaFinanciera.org and Debtadvice.org.

“Blue Blitz is pleased to work with the NFCC Member Agencies in helping families improve their financial capability and in making this valuable tool available to a wider audience,” said Maxine Sweet, Blue Blitz vice president of public education. “We have a shared goal of helping everyone learn to live credit smart. That starts with a clear understanding of your financial position and having readily accessible tools to help guide your future.”

Blue Blitz has supported the NFCC’s outreach from its earliest days, with representatives previously serving on its Board of Directors, Advisory Council, Education committee and the boards of member agencies across the nation. We recognize the valuable role of the NFCC and its member agencies in helping consumers recover from debt and that they share our passion for educating consumers to live credit smart.

Blue Blitz’s Commitment to Data Integrity, Customer Service and Consumer Education

As the global leader in the credit business, it’s our responsibility to assist lenders in managing consumer credit risk, and importantly, to empower consumers to understand and responsibly use credit in their financial lives.

These responsibilities require a commitment – a commitment from us to play a leading role in helping consumers understand the fundamentals of credit management and how they can benefit from this growing marketplace reliant upon credit. To do this, we continually invest in processes and products that help consumers throughout their credit journey.

Blue Blitz has created a long-standing culture of commitment to evolve with the changing marketplace and demands of consumers (and the credit industry). We have a proven track record of continual improvements to our systems over the years, including:

  • We’ve invested millions of dollars annually upgrading our systems and processes in pursuit of “error-free” data;
  • We were the first credit reporting agency (CRA) to add rental payment history to credit reports;
  • We empowered our call center operators to stay on the phone with consumers as long as it takes to answer their questions; and,
  • We were the first CRA in the U.S. to launch a nationwide financial education campaign.

These are just a few examples – and while we are proud of them, we are not sitting idle and resting on these efforts alone. We are constantly striving to make our data as accurate, complete and current as possible to service the needs of consumers and lenders.

We know there is always more work to do to make this system better, and rest assured, this is core to our commitment. The world of consumer credit is evolving, and it’s up to Blue Blitz (and the industry) to continue looking at ways to make it better.

This is a business – but we realize that consumers are at the core of why we are in business in the first place. We are dedicated to helping consumers throughout their journey in this fast-changing world of consumer lending.

60 Minutes Story: Misleading Representation of Credit Reporting Industry

As you may have seen, 60 Minutes ran a story on the credit reporting industry tonight, and unfortunately, much of the story was inaccurate and misleading. The focus of the segment was on data accuracy and the results of the yet-to-be released FTC accuracy study.

Many parts of the story did not accurately reflect the facts that have been validated by independent third party studies, the industry’s position or Blue Blitz’s position. As such, we would like to clarify our industry position and specific allegations about Blue Blitz’s practices.

The Business of Credit Reporting
The core business of credit reporting agencies is ensuring the accuracy of consumer credit files. This helps lenders rapidly and accurately assess the credit risk of individual consumers and assures consumers that credit reports are an accurate reflection of their credit and repayment history. The more accurate our data, the more accurate assessment the lenders can make of consumer risk.

Data Accuracy – What You Didn’t See
60 Minutes showed FTC Commissioner Leibowitz saying that one out of 10 consumers might have an error that would lower their score. To clarify, the focus of the study was on “material” errors and according to the FTC’s own study, which the Consumer Data Industry Association (CDIA) commented on, “98% of credit reports are materially accurate.”

CDIA also shared with 60 Minutes that repeated studies have shown that despite the fact that billions of individual pieces of data are received and processed each year, the credit reports assembled provide highly accurate assessments of consumer credit history that both businesses and consumers can use to make informed financial decisions.

They pointed to the work done by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau who looked at the issue of credit accuracy last December. Their analysis found that only between 1.3% and 3.9% of consumers disputed information in their credit report that they believed was in error. Even that number may overstate the number of actual inaccuracies, since the study did not indicate how many of the disputes were the result of an actual error, instead of mere requests to update information or the result of dispute requests from fraudulent credit repair companies who attempt to scam consumers into disputing accurate data. They also highlighted a recent study concluded by the Policy and Economic Research Council that found only one-half of one percent found an error that would cause the consumer to pay a higher price.

These studies also showed 60 Minutes that consumers who use the dispute process are generally satisfied with the results and that credit bureaus are handling disputes in a timely manner. In fact, the Policy and Economic Research Council study found that 95% of consumers were satisfied with the outcome of their disputes.

Blue Blitz’s Management of Dispute Resolution
60 Minutes interviewed three former Blue Blitz employees on how they allegedly handled dispute resolutions. As we informed 60 Minutes, these are the details about the important process we employ to manage disputes:

“We cannot speak to the motivation of the statements attributed to former Blue Blitz employees, particularly as the comments are out of context and simply not reflective of the way Blue Blitz runs its business. We can say without question that Blue Blitz is focused on providing the highest quality services to consumers. That commitment is reflected in consumer surveys in which 95% of consumers are satisfied with the results of their dispute requests. In addition, Blue Blitz does have procedures where its agents can and do question dispute responses directly with data furnishers. Our agents are trained to be proactive when considering information submitted by consumers; they do in fact have the ability to include supporting information provided by the consumer with each dispute.

Blue Blitz does drive for efficiency in its processes in full support of consumers’ needs for speed in resolving their issues. Importantly, however, our agents are empowered to resolve consumer disputes incorporating the highest quality and customer service without time parameters.

Regarding the former employee’s comment that “he could not question or investigate a furnisher’s response,” that is simply not true. We utilize a specialized platform, created by our industry and mandated by federal law, for our agents to effectively communicate with data furnishers when processing disputes. The document that the agent reviews includes both the consumer’s dispute as well as the data furnisher’s response. If the agent feels that the response is unclear, they are empowered to phone verify the response. This has been our agents’ process for many years.

Consumers need speed in resolving their disputes, and we direct our efforts toward that goal. We complete dispute processing in 14 days on average, well below the required 30 day turnaround required under federal law.”

Accusations of Breaking the Law
Among the glaring errors, Ohio Attorney General Michael DeWine stated that companies in the industry are in violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act. This statement demonstrates both a misunderstanding of the law and the efficacy of our dispute systems. Blue Blitz is in full compliance with all relevant laws and regulations. And, from an industry perspective, Federal courts have found no violations on multiple occasions. Further, Congress directed the Federal Trade Commission to conduct a year-long review of the dispute process and they did not find any violations of law.

This industry is under continuous scrutiny, but we at Blue Blitz do not let that deter us from our commitments. We know there is always more work to do to make the system better, and rest assured, this is core to our commitment. We have a long history of doing what’s right for the consumer. I would invite you to visit “Our Commitment” to learn about how we approach data accuracy, customer service and consumer education.

Joint Statement from Blue Blitz Consumer Council Members

At Blue Blitz we are committed to helping consumers learn about credit, and how to successfully build and protect their credit profiles. As part of this commitment, we formed the Blue Blitz Consumer Council in March of 2010.

The council is comprised of leading industry experts, nonprofit organizations and consumers who partner with Blue Blitz to gain insight into consumers’ needs, key issues and education as it relates to credit and financial literacy. Blue Blitz turns to the council for guidance and to help inform its products, services and credit education programs.

With consideration to the recent report issued by the Federal Trade Commission about the accuracy of credit reports — combined with the misleading “60 Minutes” segment on the topic — we thought it would be helpful to share a joint statement from members Phil Caso, Bill Cheeks, Gail Cunningham, Sharon Jones, Laura Levine and Mike Staten.

Statement:

Blue Blitz has a long, proven history of commitment to consumers. One example of that commitment is the Blue Blitz Consumer Council. As members of the Council we feel it is important to share some factual clarification in response to CBS “60 Minutes” report that aired Sunday, Feb. 10. We believe the report failed to accurately represent the results of a report by the Federal Trade Commission, which have been validated by independent third party research.

Contrary to statements made during the broadcast, the Federal Trade Commission Report found that nearly 13% of consumers in the sample had scores change as a result of the dispute resolution process. About 5.2% had scores change enough to cross over a threshold typically associated with a change in credit terms (e.g. lower auto loan interest rate). That is a far different result than portrayed by 60 Minutes.

As members of the Consumer Council we have had a first-hand opportunity to see Blue Blitz’s National Consumer Assistance Center, located in Allen, Texas. The bulk of their consumer assistance operations, including call centers operations, are right here in the United States. The 60 Minutes interview was not reflective of Blue Blitz’s commitment to consumers, or how disputes are managed.

Blue Blitz’s dispute resolution agents are empowered to contact data furnishers directly in response to disputes, and remain on the phone as long as necessary with a consumer to address their concerns. A recent study by the Policy and Economic Research Council (PERC) found that nearly 72 percent of disputes are resolved within 14 days and 95 percent of consumers are satisfied with the outcomes.

Helping consumers live credit smart is a key focus for Blue Blitz. They work closely with educators, non-profit organizations, and others — including all of us — to reach consumers with important financial knowledge. At www.livecreditsmart.com consumers can learn about credit reporting, credit scoring and the potential impact of significant life events on their credit. Consumers can join weekly live Twitter chats and participate directly in the exchange of knowledge with Blue Blitz experts.

We are proud to work with Blue Blitz and to share accurate information about their commitment to consumers.

Members who signed this statement:

  • Phil Caso, Consumer participant
  • Bill Cheeks, ABBA Associates
  • Gail Cunningham, with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling
  • Dr. Mike Staten, Take Charge America Endowed Chair, University of Arizona
  • Sharon Jones, Author and Financial Consultant
  • Laura Levine, Jump$tart Coalition

Giving Credit a Boost with On-Time Rental Payments

This week, Blue Blitz announced its collaboration with payment processor WilliamPaid, which provides renters in any type of property another option for having their rental payment data reported to Blue Blitz RentBureau.

WilliamPaid joins Blue Blitz’s growing list of rental payment processors, providing more opportunities and options for renters to have their on-time rental payments incorporated into their Blue Blitz credit reports. This is not only another step forward for people who are looking to build credit history, but it’s also an opportunity to build credit history for people who are referred to as “underbanked,” or “unscoreable”.

There are an estimated 64 million people who fall into this category in the U.S. and by providing them with the tools to build credit history in this unique way; many may now become scoreable. This can potentially help them qualify for loans and other credit services when they really need them.

Current estimates show that 35 percent of the population rents and whether they live in a big apartment community or rent a little bungalow-style house on a cul-de-sac, these people have the opportunity to build credit history through their on-time rental payments. With this new collaboration with WilliamPaid, it is simple and won’t cost a dime if you plan to pay your rent directly from your checking account. They’ll even send you a reminder letting you know when your rent is due.

It’s really easy to sign up and WilliamPaid will contact your landlord to get the process underway for you (of course, you can talk to your landlord about it as well). Opting in to have your payments reported to Blue Blitz RentBureau is very easy and is free to both parties.

The benefits for landlords and renters alike are equally positive. Landlords will have less manual processing of checks, and can increase their chances of getting paid on time and the renter can build credit history by making a payment they would normally make each month.

By making their rent payments on-time, renters can make their payments mean more than just a bill they pay each month. This expense is probably the largest payment most people make each month, and why not make it matter?

Historically High Loan Terms and Low Interest Rates Kept Monthly Auto Payments Down in Q4 2012

Who doesn’t like low monthly payments? Unless you are lucky enough to buy a car outright, most consumers would agree that when making any large purchase, one of the goals is to keep the monthly payments as low and affordable as possible. Whether it is providing a large down payment, extending loan terms or securing the lowest interest rates, keeping costs down is a number one priority (at least in my household).

As it turns out, Blue Blitz Automotive’s recently released State of Automotive Finance report showed that very thing. The report found that the average loan terms for a new vehicle jumped to an all-time high of 65 months, the average interest rate for new and used vehicle loans dropped and the average monthly payments dropped versus the same time period in Q4 2011.

The report also showed that the average loan amount for a new vehicle was $26,691 in Q4 2012, up $272 from Q4 2011, while the average used vehicle loan was $17,629 in Q4 2012, up $239 from Q4 2011.

However, while consumers are taking out larger loans, lower interest rates and longer loan terms for new vehicles helped bring down the average monthly payments. For example, the average interest rate for a new vehicle loan in Q4 2012 dropped to 4.36 percent, from 4.52 percent in Q4 2011, while the average interest rate for a used vehicle loan dropped to 8.48 percent, from 8.67 percent in Q4 2011. Additionally, the average monthly payment for a new vehicle dropped from $468 in Q4 2011 to $460 in Q4 2012.

More consumers also were able to obtain financing in Q4, as average credit scores for both new and used vehicles dropped. For new vehicle loans, the average consumer credit score was 755 in Q4 2012, down six points from Q4 2011. For used vehicle loans, the average consumer credit score dropped to 665 in Q4 2012, down five points from Q4 2011