Q&A: Saving for retirement also means planning for the tax hit

Dear Liz: I’m 40. We own our house and have a young daughter. Through my current employer, I’m able to contribute to a regular 401(k) and also a Roth 401(k) retirement account. My company matches 3% if we contribute a total of 6% or more of our salaries. Are there any reasons I should contribute to both my 401(k) and Roth, or should I contribute only to my Roth? My salary and bonus is around $80,000 and I have about $150,000 in my 401(k) and about $30,000 in my Roth. Thanks very much for your time.

Answer: A Roth contribution is essentially a bet that your tax rate in retirement will be the same or higher than it is currently. You’re giving up a tax break now, because Roth contributions aren’t deductible, to get one later, because Roth withdrawals in retirement are tax free.

Most retirees see their tax rates drop in retirement, so they’re better off contributing to a regular 401(k) and getting the tax deduction sooner rather than later. The exceptions tend to be wealthier people and those who are good savers. The latter can find themselves with so much in their retirement accounts that their required minimum distributions — the withdrawals people must take from most retirement accounts after they’re 70½ — push them into higher tax brackets.

That’s why many financial planners suggest their clients put money in different tax “buckets” so they’re better able to control their tax bills in retirement. Those buckets might include regular retirement savings, Roth accounts and perhaps taxable accounts as well. Roths have the added advantage of not having required minimum distributions, so unneeded money can be passed along to your daughter.

Given that you’re slightly behind on retirement savings — Fidelity Investments recommends you have three times your salary saved by age 40 — you might want to put most of your contributions into the regular 401(k) because the tax break will make it easier to save. You can hedge your bets by putting some money into the Roth 401(k), but not the majority of your contributions.

Q&A: How to protect your financial data in the wake of the Equifax breach

Dear Liz: Do I have the right to notify the credit bureaus that I do not want any of my financial information stored in their files? They don’t seem to be that secure. I rarely borrow money and the three financial institutions I deal with have all the data they need to lend me money if I need some. I do finance a car on occasion, because if they want to lend me money at less than 1%, why not?

Answer: The short answer is no, you have no right to stop credit bureaus from collecting information about you. You also can’t prevent them from selling that information or keeping it in inadequately secured databases.

One thing you can do is to freeze your credit reports at all three bureaus to prevent criminals from using purloined information to open credit accounts in your name. But that will cost you.

The only bureau currently waiving the typical $3 to $10 fee for freezing credit reports is Equifax, the credit bureau whose cybersecurity incident exposed Social Security numbers, dates of birth and other sensitive identifying information for 143 million Americans. The other bureaus, Experian and TransUnion, are still charging those fees.

You’ll have to pay an additional $2 to $10 each time you want to lift those freezes, which you’ll probably need to do if you apply for new insurance, apartments, cellphone service, utilities and, of course, credit. Financial institutions may indeed have plenty of information about you, but probably wouldn’t lend you any money without access to your credit reports or scores. Freezes also are a bit of a hassle because you need to keep track of a personal identification number, or PIN, to lift the freeze.

Just in case you weren’t irritated enough by this state of affairs, understand that freezes won’t stop other types of identity theft, such as someone getting medical care in your name or giving the police your information when they’re arrested. Still, instituting freezes is probably the best response to the most devastating breach yet.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to join a deluge of insurance claims for flooded cars. Also in the news: The pros and cons of zero down payment mortgages, what investors need to know about the SEC hack, and 5 budgeting apps that will save you money.

How to Join a Deluge of Insurance Claims for Flooded Cars
Drying out after Harvey and Irma.

Ins, Outs, Pros and Cons of Zero Down Payment Mortgages
What to look out for.

The SEC Hack: What Investors Need to Know
Could you be affected?

5 Budgeting Apps That Will Save You Money
A budget right in your pocket.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Credit report with score on a desk

Today’s top story: How ‘Pay for Delete’ might help your credit – if you’re lucky. Also in the news: 19 less-obvious wedding costs to bake into your budget, why financial advice is still important regardless of your income, and how to make sure you’re not going to an Equifax phishing site.

‘Pay for Delete’ Might Help Your Credit — If You’re Lucky
Negotiating with a creditor.

19 Less-Obvious Wedding Costs to Bake Into Your Budget
Budgeting the entire package.

Not Made of Money? Financial Advice Is Still for You
You don’t need to be to rich.

Make Sure You’re Not Going to an Equifax Phishing Site
Don’t make matters worse.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Want to graduate with minimal debt? Choose the right college. Also in the news: How to budget, save, and even win money with today’s prepaid debit cards, 5 key facts about earthquakes and insurance, and hackers are stealing home buyers’ down payments.

Want to Graduate With Minimal Debt? Choose the Right College
Comparison shopping.

Budget, Save, Even Win Money With Today’s Prepaid Debit Cards
Getting your spending in order.

5 Key Facts About Earthquakes and Insurance
Important information.

Hackers stealing home buyers’ down payments
Targeting hopes and dreams.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 3 ways to scrub a collections stain off a credit report. Also in the news: Why you probably need title insurance, socially responsible investing, and the Equifax hack just got worse.

3 Ways to Scrub a Collections Stain Off a Credit Report
Do your homework.

Title Insurance: What It Is and Why You (Probably) Need It
Title insurance protects the insured from a financial loss related to the ownership of a property.

Socially Responsible Investing Takes Clearing a Few Hurdles
Align your investments with your values.

Your Credit Cards May Also Have Been Compromised in the Equifax Hack
It keeps getting worse.

Squeamish about buying used items? Get over it

Bedbugs. Weird smells. The possibility of imminent breakdowns. People have all sorts of excuses for not buying used stuff.

Those who deliberately buy used items, though, say such fears are not just overblown — they’re also expensive.

In my latest for the Associated Press, how buying used items can save you money while not sacrificing quality.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: You could be overspending with credit cards. Yes, you. Also in the news: Your excuses for not contributing to a 401(k) are dwindling, which is the best way for you to zap your debt, and how millennials can prepare for the next financial crisis.

You Could Be Overspending With Credit Cards. Yes, You.
Keeping your spending in check.

Your Excuses for Not Contributing to a 401(k) Are Dwindling
No more excuses.

Different Ways to Zap Your Debt: Which Is for You?
Finding the best way to conquer your debt.

How millennials can prepare for the next financial crisis
Preparing for the inevitable.

Q&A: Sinking under a heavy debt load? There’s help

Dear Liz: I am trying to get my finances in order and, like many, I am struggling. The majority of my debt comes from student loans, but I also have unsecured debt that is weighing me down. I work for a nonprofit and know I need to contact my lenders to try to enroll in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, but my debt has me completely frozen. Every few months I try to do something and then I end up back where I am now, feeling overwhelmed.

Answer: You’re not alone. Credit counselors often deal with people who are so paralyzed by debt problems they can’t even open their bills. These people bring in sacks of unopened mail to their first appointments with the counselors.

If you haven’t been able to deal with your debt alone, then by all means, get help. A nonprofit credit counselor is an option; you can get referrals from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at www.nfcc.org. A financial planner, a financial coach or even a money-savvy friend also can help you.

If you can force yourself to simply call your student loan servicers — the companies that process the payments on your education debt — you can get the ball rolling. These companies can determine if you’re eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program and help you start on the paperwork.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness can erase the balance of your federal student loans after 10 years of payments if you work in the public sector. To get the maximum benefit, you would need to sign up for an income-based repayment plan and you may need to consolidate your loans. All this involves effort, but if you’re planning to stay in public service, it can be worthwhile.

The Trump administration has proposed ending the forgiveness program for future borrowers. Even if Congress enacts such a change, it should not affect those who have already taken out loans. But you’d still be wise to enroll as soon as possible.

Q&A: How to find out if a car has flood damage

Dear Liz: You’ve been writing recently about how to find a good, cheap used car. Can you write about how to research whether a car has been damaged in a flood?

Answer: Carfax, which provides vehicle history reports, offers a free flood check in the “resources” section of the site’s press center.

Flood-damaged cars that have been totaled by insurance companies are typically sent to auto recyclers for dismantling but some wind up back on the market. These cars are supposed to have salvage titles that make clear their dubious histories, but it’s relatively easy for unscrupulous sellers to register the car in a different, more lenient state that obscures its past. This is known as “title washing.”

Carfax’s service can help you spot the damaged cars, as can your own senses. A car that smells like mold or strong cleaning solution (to cover up the mold) is a bad sign. Carpeting or upholstery that’s obviously newer than the car can indicate it’s been replaced after flood damage. Look in the glove box and under the seats for mud or silt. A sagging headliner on a newer car is another red flag.

A good mechanic can help you spot problems if you’re not sure. If the seller won’t let you take the car to your own mechanic for inspection, don’t buy it.