Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Cutting through credit score confusion after the Experian fine. Also in the news: Eat out without biting into your budget, the female faces of student loan debt, and why it’s harder than ever to apply for financial aid.

Cutting Through Credit Score Confusion After Experian Fine
Making sense of it.

Eat Out Without Biting Into Your Budget
It’s all about strategy.

Female Faces of Student Loan Debt
A Women’s History Month feature.

It’s Harder Than Ever to Apply for Student Aid
Finding ways to make the process easier.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Using your tax refund to spring clean your finances. Also in the news: A money conference for women, why the IRS wants their share of your March Madness winnings, and how Millennials can make car buying easier.

Use Your Tax Refund to Spring Clean Your Finances
Tidying up your money.

Lola: A money conference for women.
How to better deal with financial issues unique to women.

You Won! Congratulations — Now Pay Your Taxes
The IRS wants their share of your March Madness winnings.

5 Ways Millennials Can Make Car Buying a Smoother Ride
Making the process easier.

9 Smart Ways to Spend Your Tax Refund
Buying yet another overpriced gadget isn’t one of them.

How Much More It Costs to Own vs. Rent in Your State
Where does your state rank?

Retire right — plan to do it twice

There’s the retirement that looks like the commercials: biking, travel, enjoying the family.

And then there’s the one where you can’t get up the stairs anymore.

Most of us happily plan for the first, when our health is good and energy high. The second can be hard to contemplate, when health falters and medical crises can change lives in an instant.

Yet a focus on just the active part of retirement can shortchange your quality of life once you begin to decline, which is why financial advisers suggest you also look at how you’ll live in that later phase. In my latest for the Associated Press, what you should consider for that second stage.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 7 reasons why the IRS will audit you. Also in the news: Big news that could affect your student loans, sneaky ways debt can change how you think, and how the “Once in a Lifetime” mentality screws up your budget.

7 Reasons the IRS Will Audit You
How to avoid triggering an audit.

This News Could Affect Your Student Loans
Heads up.

3 Sneaky Ways Debt Can Change How You Think
Don’t resign yourself to debt.

How a “Once in a Lifetime” Mentality Screws Up Your Budget
Something to watch out for.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to cash a check without paying huge fees. Also in the news: How a Mom paid off $37,000 of debt, what you need to know about FSAs, HSAs and taxes, and why you should beware of mind games when shopping mortgage rates.

How to Cash a Check Without Paying Huge Fees
Don’t pay money to get your money.

How I Ditched Debt: Penny Pinchin’ Mom
Learn from a Mom who paid off $37,000 of debt.

What to Know About FSAs, HSAs and Taxes
Accessing your accounts and how they affect your taxes.

Beware of mind games when shopping mortgage rates

Q&A: Deploying a windfall wisely

Dear Liz: I recently received a $38,000 windfall. I have a student loan balance of $37,000. I want to buy a home, but I can’t decide if I should have a large down payment and continue paying down student loans slowly, or make a balloon payment on my student loans and put down a smaller amount on the home. The mortgage rate would be around 4% while the student loans are at 6.55%. The price of homes in my area is at least $250,000 for a two-bedroom house (which my income supports). I want to make a smart decision.

Answer: At first glance, the answer may seem obvious: Pay down the higher-rate debt. But a deeper look reveals that the second option may be the better course.

Student loan interest is deductible, so your effective interest rate on those loans may be less than 5%. If they’re federal student loans, they have all kinds of consumer protections as well. If you lose your job, for example, you have access to deferral and forbearance as well as income-sensitive repayment plans. In most cases, you don’t need to be in a rush to pay off this tax-advantaged, relatively low-rate debt.

A home purchase may be more time sensitive. Interest rates are already up from their recent lows and may go higher. If you can afford to buy a home and plan to stay put for several years, then you probably shouldn’t delay.

A 10% down payment should be sufficient to get a good loan. You’ll have to pay private mortgage insurance, since you can’t put 20% down, but PMI typically drops off after you’ve built enough equity. You usually can request that PMI be dropped once you’ve paid the mortgage down to 80% of the home’s original value. At 78%, the lender may be required to remove PMI. (Note that these rules apply to conventional mortgages and don’t apply to the mortgage insurance that comes with FHA loans.)

You can use the remaining cash to pay down your student loans, but do so only if you already have a healthy emergency fund. It’s smart to set aside at least 1% of the value of your home each year to cover repairs and maintenance, plus you’ll want at least three months’ worth of mortgage payments in the bank. Even better would be enough cash to cover all your expenses for three months.

Q&A: Getting cash to pay medical bills

Dear Liz: I am 63 and retired from my full-time job last year since I have bad health. I work part time now and have tons of medical bills because of stage one cancer. I need additional cash. Is there some way I can get an advance using my pension check as collateral? In addition, is there any way to get an advance from those insurance people who pay people who may die in less than five years? I can’t say when I’m going to kick the bucket but any suggestions you may have that will allow me to get some immediate financial assistance will be greatly appreciated.

Answer: Let’s reinforce what you just said: You don’t know when you’re going to die. A stage one cancer diagnosis is far from an immediate death sentence. You could live for decades, so the mistakes you make now could haunt you for a long time.

Yes, there are some companies that will give you a lump sum in exchange for the next five to 10 years of your pension payments. You should avoid them like the plague. The effective interest rates they charge can be astronomical and you’ll probably be much worse off. If you’re having a hard time making ends meet now, losing a source of income won’t help.

Even if you were going to die soon, no one would hand you money just because of that fact. Those “insurance people” are actually investors who buy cash-value life insurance policies, often from the terminally ill. If you had such a policy, you might be able to sell it for an amount somewhere between the surrender value (what you’d get from the insurer by cashing it in now) and the face value (the dollar amount for which you’re insured). These transactions are called life insurance settlements. If you did have such a policy, though, you probably would be better off just borrowing the amount you need from its cash value.

Consider consulting an experienced bankruptcy attorney if you have more bills than you can pay. Medical bills, along with credit card balances and other consumer debt, can be erased in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing. Once the debt is gone, you can start rebuilding your finances for what may be a longer life than you expect.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Disputing credit card purchases. Also in the news: Accepting money from parents, 3 investing lessons from the First Lady of Wall Street, and why the IRS wants a piece of your March Madness winnings.

You Can Dispute Credit Card Purchases, But Should You?
Use, don’t abuse.

Ask Brianna: Should I Accept Money From My Parents?
The pitfalls of being an adult.

3 Investing Lessons From the First Lady of Wall Street
Meet Muriel “Mickie” Siebert.

You won your March Madness office pool! Congratulations! now pay your taxes
One shining moment for both you and the IRS.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How mortgage life insurance works. Also in the news: The $184K mistake IRA savers could make, how to invest $200,000, and the pros and cons of booking through travel sites like Expedia.

How Mortgage Life Insurance Works: Pros and Cons
Deciding if it works for you.

The $184K Mistake IRA Savers Could Make
Don’t make it!

How to Invest $20,000
Choosing wisely.

Is Booking Travel Through a Site Like Expedia Worth It?
How much do you really save?

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 4 ways to ride the rising interest rates wave. Also in the news: Why you should set your own credit card limits, reasons why credit isn’t as boring as it sounds, and more than 1 million student loan borrowers are in default.

Fed Rate Hike: 4 Ways to Ride Rising Interest Rate Wave
Only the third increase since the 2008 financial crisis.

Set Your Own Credit Card Limits and Improve Your Life
Knowing your limits.

3 Reasons Credit Isn’t as Boring as It Sounds
It’s about more than just cards.

More than 1 million borrowers defaulted on their student loans last year
The amount owed by borrowers has increased 17%.