We shared hundreds of stories with you in 2014, filled with great lessons for building your credit, getting out of debt, protecting your identity and improving your financial health, despite the many challenges that inevitably pop up along the way. Amid all the other news and events you absorbed last year, we don’t expect you to remember everything we covered, so we’ll make this easy for you: From the aftermath of the Target breach to the bizarre fallout of the Sony hack, we went through the Credit.com archives and rounded up some of the most important things we learned in 2014.
1. It’s Smart to Prepare for a Breach
How many data breaches from 2014 can you name? The freshest one in your mind is probably the Sony hack, but there were also attacks on Home Depot, Staples, Dairy Queen, P.F. Chang’s — the list goes on. Credit.com Co-Founder and Chairman Adam Levin recently wrote about the most important lessons you can learn from the Sony hack, encouraging consumers and companies to prioritize data security and behave with the knowledge that your personal information and correspondence could be exposed at any time.
Prepare for the possibility of fraud by monitoring your credit, regularly reviewing account activity and knowing what to do if your personal information has been stolen. Do what you can to strengthen your data security, but know that so much of it is beyond your control, so the best thing you can do is know how to react to a breach.
2. Communication Is Crucial to Getting Debt-Free as a Couple
We published several success stories about getting out of debt, but some of the most memorable involved couples working together to conquer their finances. The stories had similar themes: Ellie Kay married her husband without knowing about his $40,000 of consumer debt, and Ja’Net Adams was unaware her husband took out student loans to pay for college. Both families eventually hit breaking points where they realized debt was holding them back, and they needed to make drastic changes to get rid of it.
Getting out of debt is never easy, and the more people who are involved, the more complicated it can be. At the same time, having someone to work through the challenges with you can be extremely helpful. Adams’ and Kay’s stories highlight two crucial elements of getting debt free: staying committed to a plan and remaining open and honest about the process’ progress and challenges. Those lessons apply to any personal finance goal, whether you’re planning with a family or on your own.
3. Staying Up to Date on Your Credit Is Easier Than Ever
There’s really no excuse these days for not knowing what’s going on with your credit. You can get two of your credit scores for free every 30 days on Credit.com, and you probably have access to other free credit score tools, too. FICO rolled out a program called FICO Open Access, which allows consumers with certain financial products (including Discover credit cards and some Sallie Mae student loans) to review their FICO scores for free. In the past year, many more of these programs have become available to consumers, free of charge, because there’s a strong belief that an informed consumer makes better financial decisions.
Looking at the same credit score periodically helps you understand how your behavior, like credit card use and loan repayment, affects your credit. It can also help you spot and stop fraud and identity theft.
4. Paying for Health Services Is Harder Than It Should Be
In September, Credit.com Director of Consumer Education Gerri Detweiler broke her hand, resulting in a trip to the ER and a messy experience with medical bills.
“Our medical billing system is far too complicated and convoluted,” Detweiler wrote in a December post for Credit.com. “For all the talk of putting patients more in charge of their care, there is little opportunity to make informed decisions. One of the main things that irked me was my complete inability to confirm whether I received the services my insurance company and I paid for.”
This is coming from a woman whose first question upon arriving at the emergency room was whether the provider was in her insurance network. Detweiler’s experience shows you have to be exceptionally persistent in gathering information about your medical bills, otherwise you’ll easily lose track of something and possibly receive a collection notice about it. Even with her diligent record-keeping and frequent efforts to communicate with billing departments, Detweiler still doesn’t have all the answers she wants about her brief emergency room visit.
5. More Education on Student Loan Debt Is Needed
In December, the Brookings Institution released a report saying about half of students polled in a nationally representative survey didn’t know how much they borrowed for their education. That’s absurd. How can people prepare to repay debt if they have no idea how much of it they have?
Add this to the general consensus that borrowers aren’t well enough aware of their student loan repayment options, and the high default rate among student loan borrowers makes a lot of sense. Granted, the share of borrowers who defaulted within three years of entering repayment declined this year, from 14.7% to 13.7%, but that’s still a huge default rate. Considering it takes months of missed payments to default in the first place, there are millions of borrowers who are having serious trouble repaying their education debt who haven’t yet hit the dreaded point of default.
Not only do students need to have a better idea of what they’re getting themselves into when they take out student loans, they need to be well versed in their repayment options, should they find themselves unable to make the payments.
A lot happened in the personal finance world in 2014, and 2015 is sure to be similarly eventful. If these stories are any indication, the best thing you can do to ensure a productive financial year is to make sure you’re informed about your financial situation, credit standing and options for getting out or staying out of debt.
What did you learn in 2014, or what do you want to learn more about in 2015? Share your thoughts in the comments.
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