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Roger Wohlner: 5 rules for living in a rising-rate world

The Federal Reserve announced in December its first interest rate hike since 2006, a move that had been highly anticipated by financial experts and consumers. The Fed indicated that there would likely be gradual interest rate increases in the future.

“I think the increase is great news,” said financial advisor Eric McClain. “Rates have been below even normal low rates for a long time. Reverting to a normal range should be good for fixed-income investors, and should be viewed as a vote of confidence in the U.S. economy.”

The new rates can have an impact on your finances, which is why it’s important to be prepared. Read on to learn five rules for living in a rising-rate world.

RUN THE NUMBERS BEFORE YOU DECIDE

When it comes to planning for your financial future, run the numbers to help you decide how best to manage your money, said financial writer Julie Rains. Doing so can help you determine the best course of action.

“You should no longer make assumptions that mortgage rates and student loan rates are always going to be lower than potential investment growth rates,” she said. “Sure, when interest rates are very low, as they have been over the past decade or so, it’s typically good advice to invest rather than accelerate your mortgage payment.”

For example, the spread between investment earnings versus mortgage interest rates tends to be wide — say 6 to 8 percent growth on investments, as opposed to 2 percent on a mortgage, she said. “But as interest rates rise, the financial scenarios change — and your decision-making process should also change,” she added.

SWITCH TO A FIXED-RATE MORTGAGE

If you took advantage of the historically low interest rates by getting a variable-rate mortgage, you’re likely to see your monthly mortgage payment increase. You can rein in potential increases to your mortgage payment by refinancing. “Lock down all debt into the form of fully amortizing, fixed-rate mortgages,” said Todd Tresidder, a money coach at FinancialMentor.com.

“If you have a variable or balloon (loan), and plan on holding the property for more than a few years, then refinance,” he said. “If you’re renting, then consider buying. The concept is to transfer the risk of rising interest rates to the lender through fixed-rate, fully amortizing financing.”

SHOP CAREFULLY FOR NEW CREDIT

On the day the Fed announced the rate increase, several major banks announced increases to their prime lending rates. Wells Fargo said it would increase its prime rate to 3.5 percent, and U.S. Bancorp and JPMorgan Chase quickly followed up with their own increases, according to CNBC.

Rising rates impact the interest rates on credit cards, mortgages and other types of loans. This will impact you if you are shopping for a loan, and if the interest rate on your existing debt is variable. The best advice is to shop around when looking for a new loan or credit card — not only for the rate, but also the terms.

DON’T DISMISS BONDS AS AN INVESTMENT

Much has been written about how rate increases will hurt bond investors, especially those who invest via bond mutual funds and ETFs. However, there are several other factors that influence bond prices — including the maturity of the bond, the coupon rate of interest and market factors, such as supply and demand.

Duration, a measure of the discounted cash flow of the bond, and the slope of the yield curve ultimately affect how much impact a rate hike will have on a bond fund. Over time, as the older bonds are replaced with newer bonds with higher coupon rates, the fund’s returns will trend toward the weighted average coupon rate of the fund. Furthermore, bonds provide stability in an investment portfolio, and have a relatively low — and a slightly negative — correlation to stocks, which can provide a good measure of diversification.

WATCH FOR HOUSING MARKET CHANGES

Most homebuyers finance their home purchase with a mortgage. As mortgage interest rates go up, homebuyers are unable to afford as much home. This can ultimately impact home sales and the construction of new homes, according to CNBC.

The potential for reduced home buying power might be incentive enough for consumers to move more quickly when listing their home and looking for a new one. If higher interest rates affect the housing market, cash buyers could also be better positioned to take advantage of lower prices.

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