Wall Street Crisis Hits Main Street: 8 changes affecting your finances

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Politicians, economists, columnists and bloggers have offered numerous stark predictions about how the current financial crisis and government bailout will affect average Americans. But the truth is that Wall Street's crisis, which kicked off September 15 with the fall of Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and AIG, is already affecting Main Street.

We list eight ways your finances are already being affected by the current financial meltdown:

Credit card limits reduced:
Even if you have a high credit score and a blemish-free payment history, your credit limit may have been cut. American Express recently cut the credit for 10% of its cardholders, but most banks have reduced credit limits for some customers since last summer. If you are making a big purchase or use your credit card for unplanned expenses, be sure to check your limit. There are big penalties for going over it.

Student loans harder to come by:
It's not just banks and mortgage lenders that are suffering. The student loan industry is in crisis. Private lenders are going under and some state agencies and large banks, including Bank of America and Wachovia, have stopped issuing student loans. Some schools are being more forgiving on payment schedules as students scramble to secure funding. Call the student aid office for help, but expect less favorable terms than prior years.

Money market mutual funds safer:
To stave off investor panic after one prominent money market fund "broke the buck," or posted a small decline in value, the government has promised it would cover any losses. Not all funds are covered in the new program, so check with your fund company if you are worried. With this added protection, money market funds are now just as safe as bank savings accounts.

More incentives to open bank accounts:
One result of the credit crisis is that banks are trying their darndest to attract more deposits. Chase is currently offering $125 (at least in New York City) to open an account with direct deposit. Citibank is beefing up its "Thank You" rewards program. Refer a friend, and Bank of America will give you both $25. Remember, low fees and high interest on savings are more important than one-time incentives when choosing a bank.

Easier to get a loan if you have good credit:
Don't forget, even in the current crisis, banks want to stay in business. So they are continuing to make loans to borrowers with with good credit records and plenty of assets. There are good deals on home equity lines of credit and businesses have found short-term loans easier to come by since the bailout talks began.

Harder to get a loan if you have weak credit:

If you have a tarnished credit history, don't expect to get a loan any time soon -- even if you're willing to pay high interest rates. Banks continue to tighten their lending standards as the credit crisis deepens. If you need to rebuild your credit score, a good way to start is by using a secured credit card (one where you have cash in a bank account to back up purchases).

More deals at stores in preparation for weak holiday spending:

With the economy slowing and family budgets tightening, retailers are anticipating a tough holiday sales season ahead. So they are layering on the deals early. Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving when the holiday shopping season kicks off, should provide a bonanza of deals. Consumer electronics will offer particularly good buys.

Investment returns are down:
The stock market has taken it on the chin in recent weeks. But sharp sell-offs on bad news have been followed by major relief rallies a day or two later. The worst thing you can do is panic and sell at the bottom. Instead, make sure your investments are diversified and use the upswings to sell some stocks if you realize now that you've taken on more risk than you can handle.
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