Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Pile of Credit CardsToday’s top story: The hidden bonuses of paying off credit card debt. Also in the news: Financial tips for the sandwich generation, how to start preparing your taxes, and the changes coming to your credit card perks.

The Hidden Bonus of Paying Off Credit Card Debt
Your credit score will thank you for it.

The Sandwich Generation: 5 C’s To Deal With Your Financial Challenges
The financial challenges of taking care of your young and old.

11 Tax Moves Every Taxpayer Should Make Before the End of the Year
Time to get organized.

Big Changes Coming for Your Credit Card Perks
What’s in and what’s out.

6 questions to ask before getting a store credit card
Know what you’re signing up for.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

check-credit-report-easilyToday’s top story: Five credit reports you may not know about. Also in the news: Money gift ideas for the holidays, why your nest egg could be at risk next year, and the top money scams affecting your pocketbook.

5 Credit Reports You Don’t Know About But Should
How’s your casino credit?

5 Money Gift Ideas for the Holidays
Financially creative gift giving.

5 Reasons Why Your Nest Egg Could be at Risk in 2016
Looking towards the future.

12 Top Scams Affecting Your Pocketbook
The latest scams you need to watch out for.

Q&A: 401(k) followup

Dear Liz: Your reply about what to do with a 401(k) after someone leaves a job was off base, in my opinion.

You advised the questioner to leave the 401(k) with the former employer until it could be rolled over to a new 401(k) with a new employer. Wouldn’t it be better to roll over the old 401(k) to an IRA? An IRA offers more control and better investment options than a 401(k).

Answer: More is not necessarily better. Some people appreciate the chance to diversify their investments by using a rollover IRA. Many others, however, have no need for thousands of investment options and in fact could be paralyzed by so many choices.

The investment options available for IRAs also can be more expensive than what’s typically available in large company plans. These 401(k)s often offer institutional funds with low expense ratios that are unavailable to retail investors.

Finally, 401(k)s have better protection from creditors than IRAs if the worker is sued or files for bankruptcy, although that won’t be an issue for the vast majority of savers.

People can protect an unlimited amount of money in a 401(k), while IRA protection is limited to $1,245,475.

Keeping an account with an old employer, or rolling it over to a new one, won’t be the right solution for everyone. But neither is an IRA rollover—despite what brokerage houses that profit from IRA rollovers may tell you.

Q&A: Brokerage accounts

Dear Liz: I have some questions regarding my brokerage accounts. What happens to my investments there if the brokerage company goes out of business? How much of my investments will I be able to recover and how? Also, does it matter if my accounts are IRAs, Roth IRAs, or conventional brokerage accounts?

Answer: Most brokerages are covered by the Securities Investment Protection Corp., which protects up to $500,000 per eligible account, which includes a $250,000 limit for cash.

Different types of accounts held by the same person can get the full amount of coverage. IRAs, Roth IRAs, individual brokerage accounts, joint brokerage accounts and custodial accounts could each have $500,000 of coverage.

So with an IRA, a Roth and a regular brokerage account, you would have up to $1.5 million in coverage.

If you have a few traditional IRAs at the brokerage, though — say, one to which you contributed and one that’s a rollover from a 401(k) — those two would be combined for insurance purposes and covered as one, with a $500,000 limit.

In addition to SIPC coverage, many brokerages buy additional insurance through insurers such as Lloyds of London to cover larger accounts.

It’s important to understand that SIPC doesn’t cover losses from market downturns. The coverage kicks in when a brokerage goes out of business and client funds are missing.

SIPC is commonly compared to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which protects bank accounts, but there’s an important difference between the two.

The FDIC is backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government. SIPC has no such implicit promise that if it’s overwhelmed by claims, the government will come to the rescue.

Q&A: Delayed tax refunds

Dear Liz: How long is too long for an IRS tax refund to be disbursed? I got my state tax refund in a matter of weeks. The IRS refund has been “under review” for almost five months.

Answer: A sizable surge in tax refund theft as well as a database breach that exposed more than 300,000 taxpayers’ returns have kept the IRS pretty busy. At the same time, big budget cuts have left the agency with fewer people to help with these issues.

Five months is a long wait, but people who have been the victims of refund theft report waiting nine months or more to get their money back.

You can try contacting the IRS directly at (800) 829-1040, although you’re likely to be on hold for quite a while. If you can’t get a response, you can contact the IRS’ Taxpayer Advocate at (877) 777-4778, but be advised its resources have been trimmed as well and it may just refer you back to the IRS.

Six mistakes people make when giving to charity

Christmas donation, Concept of charityHere is a helpful rule of thumb for donating to charities this holiday season: Take your time.

People waste billions of dollars on inefficient, poorly run or downright fraudulent charities because they do not bother to research where their money is going.

And even donations to legitimate causes can be squandered by last-minute, impulsive or scattershot giving, said Daniel Borochoff, president and founder of nonprofit watchdog Charity Watch (www.charitywatch.org/).

In my latest for Reuters, why you should carefully consider your holiday donations.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

giftcardsToday’s top story: How to protect your gift cards this holiday season. Also in the news: Getting the most out of your credit cards over the holidays, where to cash a check without paying high fees, and personal finance mythbusting.

Why Gift Cards Aren’t As Secure As Your Credit Cards
Protecting your presents.

How to get the most out of your credit cards over the holidays
Making your credit cards work for you.

Where to Cash a Check Without Paying High Fees
Keeping as much of your money as possible.

5 personal finance myths you probably still believe

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Chip card

inside-passportToday’s top story: How being behind on your taxes could affect your travel plans. Also in the news: How to determine who you can claim as a dependent, financial steps to take when you’re on your own, and how to avoid costly credit card traps.

Haven’t Paid Your Taxes? You May Need to Cancel Your Travel Plans
Your passport could be in jeopardy.

This IRS Tool Tells You If You Can Claim a Dependent
Finding your tax breaks.

7 Financial Steps to Take Once You’re on Your Own
It’s a whole new world out there.

How to Avoid 5 Costly Credit Card Traps
Don’t fall in.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

best-credit-cards-for-holiday-shopping-2013Today’s top story: Smart ways to use credit cards over the holidays. Also in the news: Personal finance tips people wish they’d know when they were younger, how to survive Black Friday, and steps you should take before the next financial crash.

5 Smart Ways to Use Credit Cards During the Holidays
Protecting your money and your data.

5 Personal Finance Tips Most People Wish They’d Known When They Were Younger
It’s never too late.

Surviving Black Friday: How to set a budget and stick to it
Resisting temptation.

Steps You Must Take Before the Next Financial Crash
Trouble could be on the horizon.

Q&A: Cashing mature savings bonds

Dear Liz: I have savings bonds that have achieved full face value. What should I do? Keep them indefinitely or cash them in to fund my Roth account or what? Am I correct that once they have matured, there’s no more money to be made off them?

Answer: You are correct. Once savings bonds have matured and stopped earning interest, they should be redeemed and the money put to work elsewhere. EE, H and I bonds mature in 30 years, while HH bonds mature in 20 years. You can find more information at TreasureDirect.gov.

Funding a Roth is a great idea for deploying these funds. Other good uses are paying off high-rate debt or building an emergency fund.