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Marijuana legalization initiatives could inject $7.8B into economy

Voters in nine U.S. states will decide on marijuana legalization initiatives come November. And if just seven of those initiatives pass, a new report says those states could inject $7.8 billion into the nation's economy by 2020.

>> Read more trending stories

Of course, marijuana is still illegal under federal law.

But Arizona, Nevada, Massachusetts, Maine, Montana, Florida and California are all voting to loosen their own pot restrictions.

And the report from New Frontier Data and Arcview Market Research says it could mean big money.

The study also claims the entire cannabis industry in the U.S. could hit $20.6 billion by 2020, which is slightly less than what was predicted earlier this year.

Still, as New Frontier's CEO said in a statement, "The cannabis industry is one of the fastest growing sectors in the economy and continues to astonish those in and out of the space."

Currently, 25 states and the District of Columbia have laws legalizing marijuana in some form.

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How to Escape Low-Yield Bank Savings Options

By Kirk Kinder

Learn more about Kirk on NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor

There’s no doubt that the returns you can find on cash holdings these days are less than attractive. Traditional bank savings vehicles — such as checking accounts, savings accounts, money market deposit accounts and certificates of deposit — often yield less than 1% per year. Longer-term CDs — say three years — occasionally yield closer to 1.5%.

You don’t have to accept those paltry rates. There are some ways you may be able to get better returns without taking on too much additional risk.

I-bonds

The first option is I savings bonds, or I-bonds. They’re issued and guaranteed by the U.S. government, and their returns consist of two components. The first is an interest rate that remains fixed for as long as you own the bond — currently at 0%. So why in the world would you want one? The answer is the second component of the return: a variable inflation rate, hence the “I” in I-bond. The rate is adjusted twice per year.

Over the past few years, the total return on these bonds has surpassed 3% at times. The inflation component has returned just 0.85% during the past year, but that still beats the returns you’d receive on many money market accounts and even some long-dated CDs. The gains are also exempt from state and local taxes, and you can defer federal taxes until you redeem the bonds.

But there are downsides to I-bonds. First, you can only buy $10,000 worth each year. Married couples can bump this up to $20,000. You also have to hold I-bonds for at least one year, which means they’re not an appropriate place to keep immediate living expenses — but then, neither are longer term CDs. Finally, if you redeem the bonds within the first five years, you won’t receive the last three months of interest. Even with that penalty, they often still yield more than traditional bank savings vehicles.

Peer-to-peer lending

Another option is peer-to-peer lending. These platforms let you play the role of the banker, loaning money directly to borrowers. With the banks cut out of the equation, you receive a higher return and borrowers pay lower costs.

Peer-to-peer lending platforms conduct credit analyses on borrowers, and you can review each borrower’s profile before deciding whether to invest. You can also diversify your investment by making several small loans or asking the company to pick loans for you using credit or interest rate criteria you set. Of course, these investments aren’t backed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. the way checking, savings and money market accounts and CDs are.

Prosper and Lending Club are two of the most popular peer-to-peer lending platforms; they’ve been around since 2006 and 2007, respectively. The industry is still quite new compared with the traditional banking system, so it has its growing pains, and you should be sure you’re comfortable with that before investing. That said, Lending Club and Prosper have successfully loaned individuals billions of dollars.

Lending money to people you don’t know or losing federal backing might scare you. But peer-to-peer companies have years of data on default rates, which are quite low for the highest-graded loans. According to Lending Club, less than 1% of the total issue amount of A-graded loans was charged off between Q1 2007 and Q2 2016. And with annualized returns of about 5%, those top-graded loans still trump traditional savings options even with the risk of default.

The loans’ potential illiquidity is another downside. Platforms exist to sell the loans, but you might not find a buyer or get the full value of the loan. And peer-to-peer lending isn’t authorized in every state. Ask your state’s securities regulator if it is in yours.

Even without FDIC backing, and acknowledging the default risk and lack of liquidity, peer-to-peer lending is worth considering as an alternative to savings options such as money market accounts and CDs.

Escaping low yields

If you have three to six months of emergency savings safely socked away, you can consider investing any savings beyond that in these alternatives. You still need to keep enough cash in your checking, saving or money market accounts or short-term CDs to cover immediate expenses, but if you’re looking to escape the low-yield universe of bank savings accounts, you may want to explore these options.

Kirk Kinder, CFP, is a fee-only financial planner and the principal of Picket Fence Financial with offices in Maryland and Florida.

This article also appears on Nasdaq.

The Most Affordable Time of Year to Buy a Home

While it may be more convenient to buy a home in the summer before school starts, waiting until fall or winter can save you big dollars, a new NerdWallet study found.

To determine the most affordable time to buy, NerdWallet analyzed the past two years’ worth of listings and sales in the 50 most populous U.S. metro areas using data from Realtor.com. NerdWallet found that home sale prices — the amount a buyer actually pays — in the nation’s largest metro areas typically peak during the summer, dip in the fall and are lowest in winter, potentially saving off-peak buyers thousands of dollars.

Key takeaways
  • Summer is typically the most expensive time to buy. In the majority of metro areas analyzed, home sale prices peak in June and July. Inventory is also highest those months, but so is competition.
  • Sale prices fall in autumn. Home listing prices don’t fall dramatically once summer ends — they only decrease less than half a percent in the fall. But sale prices take a noticeable dip. In the 50 metro areas, home sale prices dropped 2.96% on average — that’s a drop of $8,300 on the median home — from summer (June through August) to fall (September through November).
  • Home sale prices are usually lowest in winter. If you can wait a little longer to buy, hold off until January or February, when homes cost 8.45% less on average than in June through August. January had the cheapest sale prices in 29 of the 50 metro areas, and February had the cheapest prices in 19 areas.
Where prices drop the most

The degree of seasonal decreases in home sale prices varies across metro areas. In our analysis, the metro area of Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, Connecticut, experienced the largest drop in price from summer to fall at 8.2%. The Cleveland-Elyria, Ohio, metro area had the second-largest drop at 8.0%, and the Birmingham-Hoover, Alabama, metro area came in third with a 7.6% drop in price from summer to fall.

“If your circumstances give you the freedom to be able to choose the best time to look to sign a contract on a new home, there’s no question that the market dynamics favor you the most to do that in the dead of winter, ideally in January or February, right before the activity starts to heat up,” says Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for Realtor.com.

To see the most affordable time to buy a home in each metro area and view the full methodology, read the full report.

Emily Starbuck Crone is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: emily.crone@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @emstarbuck. Daniel Tonkovich is a data analyst at NerdWallet. Email: dtonkovich@nerdwallet.com.

2016 Toyota Mirai Fuel Cell: Back to the Future, Again

Review: 2016 Toyota Mirai Fuel Cell

One of only two fuel cell electric cars on the U.S. retail market, the Toyota Mirai — like the plug-in electric Tesla — aims to marry creature comfort and cutting-edge technology.

What you’ll like: Responsive luxury car for the long-awaited “hydrogen highway.” Super-comfortable seats, edgy look, space-age dashboard and years of free fuel.

What you won’t like: Little access to that free fuel — only a handful of stations, almost all in California. Pricey. Small trunk.

What you don’t know: There’s a better chance of getting blown up by the gas tank in your car than the hydrogen tank in the Mirai.

Price: $57,500 sticker price, $499 a month to lease — but tax incentives and other perks bring both down. Details below.

Gallery (click to expand) What’s different about the Mirai

There’s been talk about the “hydrogen highway” for years, a network of hydrogen fueling stations filling up cars that emit only drops of water so clean you could drink it. Sounds great, doesn’t it? But that vision of the future is 10 years away. And it’s always been 10 years away.

Until now.

Toyota, along with Honda and Hyundai, is putting its money where its corporate mouth is, finally offering a car powered by electricity generated by a fuel cell. The 2016 Toyota Mirai is now for lease or sale for those who can afford the high price tag and have a sense of adventure. The Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell is already available for sale and lease in California, and Honda’s Clarity Fuel Cell is expected to enter the market by the end of 2016.

The Mirai, a luxury sedan loaded with high-tech safety features, stickers at $57,500. But that price is reduced substantially by many factors we’ll discuss later. It can travel up to 312 miles on a fill-up and takes about five minutes to refuel from a growing network of hydrogen fueling stations around Los Angeles and San Francisco. Two “connector stations” — one along Interstate 5 and one on the 101 freeway in Santa Barbara — make it possible to drive the Mirai between L.A. and the Bay Area.

The Mirai is, in a sense, an electric car that gets its power from a fuel cell rather than from electricity stored in a battery. The main advantage of the fuel cell car over an electric car with a battery is faster fill-ups and a longer range.

How it drives

The Mirai is a midsize luxury sedan with touch screens, mounted in a swoopy dashboard, that provide stats on the driving experience, including fuel efficiency and battery charge levels (yes, it has a battery to briefly store electricity from its regenerative braking system, which activates a generator while braking or slowing down). The leather seats are comfortable and provide strong lateral support as if the car was built to be driven hard on winding roads.

A touch of the go pedal gives a surge of acceleration typical of electric cars. The Mirai’s drive train makes an assortment of soft sounds — whining and buzzing — many of which are typical of electric cars. Overall, the engine noise is nearly silent and the road noise is very low, delivering a solid, upscale ride.

On a very short test drive, the suspension was firm but comfortable, handling potholes with ease. The brakes were spongy and unresponsive, which is typical of hybrid and electric vehicles, due to the regenerative braking technology.

What’s included

The front-wheel drive Mirai comes in only one trim level, so the only decision you need to make is among the four available exterior colors. The sedan is packed with advanced safety features such as blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning, automatic emergency braking and adaptive cruise control. It also comes with several other perks:

  • Free fuel for 3 years, or up to $15,000 worth, whichever comes first.
  • An 8-year/100,000-mile warranty for the fuel cell components.
  • Free maintenance for 3 years/35,000 miles.
  • Roadside assistance for 3 years.
  • Complimentary rental car for trips outside the network of hydrogen fueling stations (up to 7 days per year).
  • Carpool stickers for the HOV lanes.
Pricing: A Nerd crunches the numbers

Leasing: Most customers will lease the Mirai, because technology is progressing quickly, and after the three-year lease is over, more advanced cars will be available. The lease payment is $499 a month for three years with $3,649 due at signing, totaling a pricey $21,613 for three years of ownership. But wait — a California Air Resources Board (CARB) rebate of $5,000 wipes out the down payment while also covering almost three monthly payments, bringing the ownership total cost to $16,613 for three years.

And it gets even better. Compare the Mirai, with its free hydrogen perk, with the similar-sized Toyota Avalon, which Fueleconomy.gov says has a $1,350 annual gas bill, and that adds up to a savings of $4,050. Now the out-of-pocket three-year total is only $12,563, or a monthly cost of about $350 (excluding registration and insurance costs).

Buying: Discounts and lease deals may pop up in the future. But for now, figure you will have to pay the sticker price of $57,500. Toyota sweetens the deal by offering 0% financing for 60 months. Furthermore, a $7,500 “Trailblazer” rebate and the $5,000 CARB rebate bring the price down to a still-pricey $45,000.

Knock off another $4,050 you don’t have to spend on gasoline, and you are at $40,950. Some buyers might also be able to use the $8,000 federal tax credit, which would bring the Mirai to an optimistic final price of $32,950 — about the price of a 2016 Toyota Avalon.

Nerd’s-eye view

There are many unknowns in the future of the fuel cell car. Perhaps the biggest is the availability and cost of hydrogen. If the hydrogen highway expands across the country and the cost of the fuel cell technology comes down, it could signal a clean alternative to gasoline-powered cars. But cheaper electric cars are already available, and charging stations are more plentiful. So you have to wonder whether the viability of fuel cell cars will perhaps remain 10 years in the future, after all.

Philip Reed is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: preed@nerdwallet.com.

What to Buy (and Skip) in October

This month, you likely have costumes, candy, decorations and pumpkins on your list of things to buy, not to mention fall clothes and household supplies. There’s a lot to purchase, but shopping for the season doesn’t mean you have to spend a scary amount.

We’ve put together a guide of everything you should buy (and skip) in October so you can snag the sales and avoid paying full price.

Buy: Jeans

Historically, October has been one of the best times to buy jeans. The cold-weather staples have been on shelves since back-to-school season and retailers are now starting to discount them.

The autumn deals on denim have already begun as October approaches. So far, we’ve spotted buy one, get one 50% off jean promotions at stores like Express and American Eagle Outfitters. Buy your jeans this month to expand your wardrobe without breaking the bank.

Skip: Toys

Halloween hasn’t even arrived yet, but you may already be thinking about the holiday shopping season — and holiday toy season. Wal-Mart has released its 2016 holiday toy list, and Toys R Us has unveiled its 2016 Hot Toy List.

If you want to pay the lowest possible price for this year’s new gizmos and gadgets for your children, wait until December. Retailers usually discount toys close to Christmas. In 2015, Amazon offered sweeping toy discounts in the weeks preceding Dec. 25. So if your son or daughter is OK without having a shiny new Star Wars figurine right now, come December you might be able to give both Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.

Buy: All things outdoor

Most people head indoors when the weather cools down, but October is a good time to focus your shopping on the outdoors. We’re talking about camping gear, patio furniture, outdoor living essentials and more.

Prices on outdoor products tend to be highest when demand is highest. But with summer becoming a distant memory, now is the time to act if you need new camping supplies.

For example, Cabela’s is hosting a 40% off sale on camp furniture. At Lowe’s, Weber Genesis gas grills are now $100 off.

Skip: Electronics

Buy a tent? Sure. But you won’t want to fill your shopping cart with major electronics this month.

We recommend that you hold off on picking up that new laptop, tablet or HDTV for a little while longer. The best time of the year for electronics deals, Black Friday, is just around the corner. You’ve waited this long, so keep up that discipline until the post-Thanksgiving deal blitz arrives on Nov. 25.

In 2015, Black Friday was a blowout. Wal-Mart sold a 50-inch TV for $269. Best Buy took up to $125 off the iPad Air 2. Target slashed Beats headphones by over $100. Deals are expected to rival these levels again in 2016, especially for shoppers who get in line early.

Buy: Halloween candy

In 2015, shoppers who celebrated Halloween planned to spend a total of $2.1 billion dollars on candy alone, according to the National Retail Federation. If you’re one of these spooky celebrants, you’ll likely be looking to buy candy in bulk again this year.

It’s difficult to buy Halloween candy in any month other than October. After all, you don’t want your Reese’s and Butterfingers to go bad before the trick-or-treaters arrive.

We recommend waiting until the end of October to make your purchase. Retailers will be more eager to unload their stock of Halloween supplies — that means costumes and decorations, too — as the holiday draws near. Also, consider bulk candy retailers like Costco or Oriental Trading Co. to lower your average cost per unit.

» MORE: What to buy every month of the year

Skip: Cleaning supplies

If you need a new vacuum cleaner or other floor care device, don’t act this month. If you can get by with your current model for a while longer, you can expect deep vacuum and cleaning supply sales in late November or early spring.

For instance, last Black Friday, we saw big sales on major vacuum brands from stores like Target, Best Buy and Costco. The Dyson V6 stick was up to $150 off, and the Dyson Cinetic Big Ball Animal vacuum was up to $170 off. We expect similar savings this season.

Shop: Columbus Day weekend sales

This Oct. 10, shoppers can commemorate the day Columbus set sail by sailing straight into a weekend full of deals. Department stores in particular are known to host sales in the days leading up to Columbus Day. Last year, Macy’s offered an extra 20% off select sale items, while J.C. Penney took up to 80% off an assortment of clothing and home goods. If you can, reserve many of your non-Halloween purchases for this weekend.

Bonus: National Taco Day

From National Selfie Day to National Coffee Day, there’s a quasi-holiday for just about anything. Restaurants particularly like observing food-themed days, as it gives them another opportunity to drum up business. This month, the day to look out for is Oct. 4, National Taco Day. In 2015, we spotted taco-themed discounts and deals at restaurants like El Torito and On the Border in honor of National Taco Day. Expect similar food freebies again this year.

Courtney Jespersen is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: courtney@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @courtneynerd.

Mortgage Rates Today, Thursday, Sept. 22: Lower Following Fed

Thirty-year and 15-year fixed mortgage rates, as well as 5/1 ARM rates, were all lower Thursday, according to a NerdWallet survey of mortgage rates published by national lenders.

NerdWallet is a free tool to find you the best credit cards, cd rates, savings, checking accounts, scholarships, healthcare and airlines. Start here to maximize your rewards or minimize your interest rates. Hal M. Bundrick, CFP Mortgage Rates Today, Thursday, Sept. 22 (Change from 9/21) 30-year fixed: 3.63% APR (-0.04) 15-year fixed: 3.06% APR (-0.03) 5/1 ARM: 3.55% APR (-0.02) Fed waits, mortgage rates move lower

The bond market liked what the Federal Reserve was dishing out: a big, heaping serving of “catch you later.” After the Fed’s Federal Open Market Committee announced its decision to leave short-term interest rates the same, bond prices rose, yields fell and mortgage rates moved lower.

“The committee judges that the case for an increase in the federal funds rate has strengthened but decided, for the time being, to wait for further evidence of continued progress toward its objectives,” the FOMC statement said. “The committee expects that economic conditions will evolve in a manner that will warrant only gradual increases in the federal funds rate; the federal funds rate is likely to remain, for some time, below levels that are expected to prevail in the longer run.”

Freddie Mac’s weekly survey of lenders found mortgage rates already lower ahead of the Fed meeting.

“The 10-year Treasury yield declined after last week’s post-Brexit high in anticipation of the Fed’s September policy meeting,” Sean Becketti, chief economist for Freddie Mac, said in a news release. “The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage followed Treasury yields, falling 2 basis points and settling at 3.48%. Despite the decrease in rates, the Refinance Index plunged 8% to its lowest level since June.”

Homeowners looking to lower their mortgage rate can shop for refinance lenders here.

NerdWallet daily mortgage rates are an average of the published APR with the lowest points for each loan term offered by a sampling of major national lenders. Annual percentage rate quotes reflect an interest rate plus points, fees and other expenses, providing the most accurate view of the costs a borrower might pay.

Hal Bundrick is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: hal@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @halmbundrick.

Key Financial Considerations When You Live Alone

By Kathryn Hauer, CFP, EA

Learn more about Kathryn on NerdWallet’s Ask An Advisor

At some point in your life, you may find yourself living alone. It could be in your apartment when you get your first job after college. It could be after a divorce in midlife or in old age after the death of a spouse. Regardless of your age or relationship status, living alone carries unique financial circumstances. Following are some important considerations for your solo financial life.

Daily expenses

One benefit of living with another person is that you may save on rent or a mortgage, utilities, cable, food and other costs of living. When you live alone, all those expenses are yours to pay in full every month. If money is tight, it’s worth looking at ways to minimize those bills. Many websites and resources offer tips on how to save on your monthly bills and budget your spending so that you make sure you’re living within your means.

Emergency savings

Financial experts recommend having three to six months of expenses in a savings account for emergencies. When you are your sole support, you may want to have six to eight months saved up. You never know when you might lose your job, have an accident, face a legal issue or run into some other kind of trouble. Keep in mind that if you do need to use your emergency fund money, you want to replace it as soon as possible.

Life insurance

If no one else depends on you for support, you probably don’t need life insurance, which is primarily used to help those who will suffer financially if you die. It’s worth taking a moment, however, to be forward-looking. Perhaps you have a parent, sibling or someone else in your life to whom you’d like to leave money. In that case, term life insurance is inexpensive for younger people and could provide a benefit for a loved one if you were to pass away while young. If you are older, you may find life insurance prohibitively expensive. But if you are still concerned about providing for a loved one, you might want to consider other estate planning strategies or the purchase of an annuity, which in some cases will pay a death benefit or continued payments to a beneficiary you designate.

Long-term care insurance

Long-term care insurance pays for your stay in a care facility after you aren’t able to take care of yourself alone. It kicks in when your doctor certifies that you need help with more than two activities of daily living, which include basic things like eating, dressing and using the bathroom. Not everyone needs long-term care insurance. Wealthy individuals may be able to cover these costs on their own. People with lower net worth and few assets, and even some middle-class consumers, could find it difficult to pay the high premiums this insurance requires. Additionally, long-term care insurance premiums can go up substantially between renewal periods. Be sure to do your research before you buy.

Keep in mind that even though after age 65 you will have Medicare, government-sponsored health insurance for the elderly, it pays only for medical care. It doesn’t pay for you to live in a nursing home or to have paid help for your daily activities of life. Once your assets have dwindled to certain levels, you will qualify for Medicaid, which covers custodial care in a nursing home.

A will

You might think you don’t need a will if you have no spouse or dependents, but if you have family members, a will would be very helpful to them. The state in which you reside decides how to dispense the assets of those who die without a will. This is the probate process and can take a long time. It may also result in dispensations you would not have wanted. Creating and signing a will can help your next of kin immensely. You can hire a lawyer to make a will or do one yourself with forms you buy online. If you have no relatives or friends you wish to leave your assets to, you can leave them to a charity, college, organization or any other entity you choose. Contact the charity or organization to find out how to make this happen.

Illness or incapacity

What happens if you have an accident or become too ill to manage your finances and bills? You might want to create a notebook of passwords, bills you pay, credit card numbers and other pertinent information so someone can step in and take over if you are temporarily incapacitated. Just make sure it’s kept in a safe place. You can offer a trusted person an extra key, and show him or her where you keep the notebook in case something happens to you. This may be sufficient for short-term illnesses. However, if you become permanently incapacitated, you’ll want to have a legal document, known as a power of attorney, in place. This gives someone else the right to manage your finances on your behalf. You can work with an estate-planning attorney to set this up.

Taxes

If you’re living alone, you probably file your taxes as “Single,” which offers fewer tax breaks and results in higher taxes than “Married Filing Jointly.” If you’re young or middle-aged, the best way to lower your taxes is to contribute the most you can (up to the limit) to 401(k) or IRA retirement plans. If you’re older, you want to be sure to check “yes” for the “over-65” higher standard deduction, which will help reduce your taxes.

Financial protection

It may be challenging to be on your own, especially if it follows years filled with family. It could also be pleasant to be able to keep your own schedule, eat what you want when you want, and spend your money on your wants rather than those of others. Knowing that you are protected financially will give you a sense of security that will enhance your general well-being.

Kathryn Hauer is a certified financial planner and fee-only investment advisor with Wilson David Investment Advisors in Aiken, South Carolina. She is the author of Financial Advice for Blue Collar America.

This article also appears on Nasdaq.

3 Tips for Managing Your Money While Separated From Your Spouse

By Shawn Leamon

Learn more about Shawn on NerdWallet’s Ask An Advisor

Separating from your spouse puts many aspects of your life in limbo. It’s unsettling to have your marriage — and your emotions — in an uncertain state.

There’s an additional area that is in limbo during a separation and is sometimes overlooked, and that’s your finances. Even though you may have physically split from your spouse, your money is still very much connected.

Separation is not easy, and proper planning of your finances is essential to help smooth the transition. Here are three tips to keep your finances in order while weighing major changes in your life.

1. Prepare new budgets

One of the first things to do when separating is to prepare a new budget. If you are physically separating you are splitting one home into two, which means new expenses to consider for at least one partner, such as rent, gas bills and the internet. You may have two homes to pay for instead of one, as well as possible divorce expenses. If you are the primary wage earner, you may pay for not only existing expenses like the mortgage, but also your spouse’s expenses. Prepare a budget to determine how you can best afford separating, including how to reduce unnecessary expenses.

You may not be able to enjoy your previous lifestyle, which makes understanding your finances so essential. A clear budget will help you understand your financial picture as an independent person and provide a glimpse into how your life may look if the separation becomes permanent.

2. Communicate about finances

Discuss with your spouse how you will be splitting the bills while separated. If you are both at the stage where divorce is the likely outcome, discuss whether you are financially able to begin the divorce process now or whether it would be better to stay separated for the time being.

There could be financial reasons to stay married for a time. Remaining separated, rather than immediately divorcing, means you will be able to file joint taxes and continue to share health benefits, so it might be the option that makes financial sense.

At the same time, separation can have important legal consequences should you get divorced. For example, marital assets are often valued at the date of separation, and any property acquired after separation — assets or debts — is considered separate, not marital property. You need to know your state’s laws to determine what you should do.

Consult a family law attorney in your state to help you properly navigate the legal elements of the separation process. This person could even help you draft a formalized agreement that indicates who is responsible for what. While such action may sound drastic, these signed agreements can protect you later should circumstances change.

3. Reduce joint debt

Although you may be separating from your spouse, your debt is still married. You must continue to pay any joint debt accounts that you have in your name. Check your credit report for a list of those accounts, such as credit cards, and consider closing them as soon as possible. Keeping joint credit cards open could be dangerous because you are still responsible if your spouse splurges on a big-ticket item.

In general, you should do your best to become financially independent by setting up checking accounts and credit cards in your name only. You will need these accounts if the separation becomes permanent, and they can help protect your money if you decide to get divorced.

During your separation, it is critical to efficiently manage your finances. With careful planning and strategic communication, you can make the process smoother regardless of whether the two of you reconcile.

Shawn Leamon, MBA, CDFA, is an author, the host of the “Divorce and Your Money” podcast, and managing partner of LaGrande Global with offices in Dallas, New York and Hanover, New Hampshire.

Mortgage Rates Today, Wednesday, Sept. 21: Calm Before the Fed

Thirty-year and 15-year fixed mortgage rates as well as 5/1 ARM rates were unchanged Wednesday, according to a NerdWallet survey of mortgage rates published by national lenders.

Mortgage rates remain in calm waters as the bond market awaits the Federal Reserve’s announcement this afternoon regarding short-term interest rates.

NerdWallet is a free tool to find you the best credit cards, cd rates, savings, checking accounts, scholarships, healthcare and airlines. Start here to maximize your rewards or minimize your interest rates. Hal M. Bundrick, CFP Mortgage Rates Today, Wednesday, Sept. 21 (Change from 9/20) 30-year fixed: 3.67% APR (NC) 15-year fixed: 3.09% APR (NC) 5/1 ARM: 3.57% APR (NC) Mortgage rates ‘lowest in over 40 years’

Freddie Mac’s monthly outlook paints an optimistic picture for the real estate industry through the end of the year. The mortgage giant expects the 30-year fixed mortgage rate to average 3.6% in 2016, “the lowest annual average in over 40 years.”

The firm also stands by its earlier prediction that 2016 will be the best year in home sales since 2006.

“In most markets, low mortgage rates have more than offset the rise in house prices, preserving homebuyer affordability for the typical household,” Sean Becketti, chief economist for Freddie Mac, said in a news release. “Homeowners are also taking advantage of low rates and house price appreciation that is increasing their home equity. The share of cash-out refinances grew to 41% in the second quarter of 2016, compared to 38% in the first quarter and 15 to 20% during the housing crisis.”

Homeowners looking to lower their mortgage rate can shop for refinance lenders here.

NerdWallet daily mortgage rates are an average of the published APR with the lowest points for each loan term offered by a sampling of major national lenders. Annual percentage rate quotes reflect an interest rate plus points, fees and other expenses, providing the most accurate view of the costs a borrower might pay.

Hal Bundrick is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: hal@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @halmbundrick.

How to Refinance Your Student Loans (Told in Under 350 Words)

Most of us are more responsible now than when we were 18. So if you’re still paying back a student loan you borrowed before you could legally order a cocktail, there’s a good chance you qualify for a better interest rate.

That’s where student loan refinancing comes in. It’s a way to save money by taking out a new, lower-interest loan to pay off your existing loans. Here’s how to do it:

Decide if it’s right for you

Refinancing isn’t for everyone. Skip it if you qualify for a federal loan forgiveness program or want to take advantage of income-driven repayment plans. You kiss those benefits goodbye forever when you refinance federal loans.

Consider refinancing only if you’re absolutely sure you can part with those federal loan perks or if you have private loans. It should especially pique your interest if your current rate is 6% or higher. To qualify, you need a credit score at least in the high 600s and enough income to comfortably afford monthly student loan payments and your other debts.

Scope your options

The whole point of refinancing is to get a lower interest rate, so it’s worth your time to search for the best offer.

Refinance marketplaces are an easy way. Try NerdWallet’s, which is powered by our partner Credible, or LendKeys, where you can compare refinance options from community banks and credit unions. With both, you’ll fill out a single form to get rate estimates from multiple lenders, and your credit score won’t get dinged. Not all refinance lenders participate in marketplaces, so consider lenders individually, too.

Submit an application

When you’re ready, apply through a marketplace or directly through the lender. You’ll need to provide details about current loans and personal income information, and the lender will run a hard credit check to see if you qualify.

After you’re accepted, the lender will pay off existing loans you choose to refinance and issue you a new one. Going forward, you’ll make payments to the new lender.

That’s the gist. To learn more, check out these questions to ask yourself before refinancing.

Teddy Nykiel is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: teddy@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @teddynykiel.

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