Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Free investments can come at a cost. Also in the news: How to not be your own worst enemy when investing, 5 things to cut your tax bill by December 31st, and how to increase your 401(k) or IRA contributions for 2019.

Free Investments Can Come at a Cost
Free doesn’t always mean without cost.

Don’t Be Your Own Worst Enemy When Investing
Look for help.

Do These 5 Things by Dec. 31 to Cut Your Tax Bill
You’ve still got time.

Increase Your 401(k) or IRA Contributions for 2019
Boost your retirement savings.

Q&A: A gift annuity needs more thought

Dear Liz: I am 93 and caretaker of my developmentally disabled daughter, who is 64. She’s in poor health and lives with me but is still able to be fairly independent. I am in good health and still able to drive and so forth. Being newly widowed, I would like to increase my monthly income. I have a reverse mortgage on my home but need money for upkeep. Besides Social Security, I have a small savings account and an annuity payment of less than $500 a month. Do you think a gift annuity that pays 9.5% is a good option?

Answer: A charitable gift annuity typically requires that you give a charity a sizable sum of cash, securities or other assets in exchange for a partial tax deduction and a lifetime stream of income. The amount that’s paid out depends in large part on your age — the older you are, the bigger the payout since your life expectancy is shorter.

Gift annuities may be a good fit for affluent people with charitable intent who can use the tax deduction. From what you’ve written, that doesn’t seem to describe you. If you do have a sizable sum you can tap, it may be better to do so directly rather than involving a charity.

You could benefit from some objective guidance, not just for improving your own financial situation but to provide for your daughter. She may be in poor health, but she still could outlive you and almost certainly will need ongoing support. That probably will include a new place to live, because the reverse mortgage will have to be repaid at your death, and that typically means the sale of the home.

A fee-only financial planner can help review your situation and connect you with other experts, such as an estate planning attorney. You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors at www.napfa.org and the Garrett Planning Network at www.garrettplanningnetwork.com.

Q&A: Watch out for scams when trying to dump a timeshare

Dear Liz: How do I get out of a timeshare contract? A few years back, we signed up for one that’s associated with a major hotel chain. Promises were implied but not kept. Since then, I continually receive notices from legal groups that say all laws favor the timeshare developer and that my kids will take over my debt unless I pay the attorney thousands of dollars to get out of the contract.

Do you know of legitimate ways to sever the ties? I know I will lose my investment but would rather be out of the contract “for eternity.”

Answer: Timeshares typically include “in perpetuity” clauses meant to keep owners on the hook indefinitely for annual maintenance fees and other charges.

That doesn’t mean their heirs have to be on the hook, however. Your kids can “disclaim” — essentially, refuse to inherit — the timeshare on your death, as long as you haven’t put their names on the deed.

If you’re not happy with your timeshare, though, consider getting rid of it before your death. Check to see if the developer will take it back or if you can sell it on a site such as RedWeek or Timeshare Users Group. Don’t expect to get much, if any, money out of the deal. In fact, you may have to pay a year or two of maintenance fees in advance as a sweetener. That could be a relatively small price to get out of what otherwise might be a lifetime obligation.

It’s unfortunate that most timeshares don’t offer a simpler way out for owners. The difficulty in getting rid of timeshares opens the door for all kinds of scams and shady behavior, with companies charging thousands of dollars and often not delivering the exit they promise.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Get to know your 401(k) plan. Also in the news: How one couple ditched debt, having the talk about college costs with your teen, and what to do if you’re affected by Marriott’s huge data breach.

Get to Know Your 401(k) Plan
Everything you need to know.

How I Ditched Debt: ‘We Have Choices Again’
One couple’s story.

Having ‘The Talk’ About College Costs With Your Teen
Keeping expectations in check.

What to Do If You’re Affected by Marriott’s Data Breach
Over 500,000,000 customers are affected.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 5 guidelines for happier holiday tipping. Also in the news: Money talk for young boys, how to save $500, and how to survive an insurance elimination period.

5 Guidelines for Happier Holiday Tipping
Some guidelines that may help you decide whom to tip, and how.

Dear Young Boys: Let’s Talk About Money
Especially investing.

How to Save $500
It’s about more than just skipping coffee.

How to Survive an Insurance Elimination Period
Making ends meet while waiting for an insurance payment.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Identity theft risks for holiday shoppers. Also in the news: What to buy and skip in December, paying down student debt on a nonprofit salary, and how to make the most of the child tax credit this year.

Holiday Shoppers, Beware of These 3 Identity Theft Risks
Watch out for grinches.

What to Buy (and Skip) in December
Hold off on jewelry.

Debt Diary: Paying Down $19K in Student Debt on a Nonprofit Salary
One man’s journey.

How to make the most of the child tax credit this year
A look at the changes.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: With money goals, multitasking pays off. Also in the news: Snagging hotel loyalty perks, what to know about high yield reward checking accounts, and how to not let debt ruin your holiday.

With Money Goals, Multitasking Pays Off
There needs to be more than just paying off debt.

Snag These Hotel Loyalty Perks, Even if You’re Disloyal
It all depends on the right card.

What to Know About High Yield Reward Checking Accounts
Some accounts offer interest as high as 5%.

Don’t Let Debt Ruin Your Holiday
Some people are still paying off last year’s gifts.

5 guidelines for holiday tipping

Holiday tips are a way to thank the people who make your life easier. So why is it so hard to figure out whom to tip and how much?

Guides published by etiquette experts don’t always agree on what’s appropriate. What people actually do is another matter altogether.

Only about half of Americans give any holiday tips, according to a recent Consumer Reports survey, and those who do tip often give less than the amounts recommended by etiquette experts. For example, 56 percent of those who had housekeepers gave them a tip, and the median amount was $50. The manners mavens at the Emily Post Institute suggests the tip equal the cost of one visit, which according to HomeAdvisor averages at $167.

In my latest for the Associated Press, some guidelines that may help you decide whom to tip, and how.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 4 mental tricks to help you save more for retirement. Also in the news: How to boost your chances of getting a personal loan, answers to your HELOC questions, and how to get your finances in order before the new year.

4 Mental Tricks to Help You Save More for Retirement
Staying on the right path.

Boost Your Chances of Getting That Personal Loan
5 tips that could help your chances.

Answers for Your HELOC Questions in 10 Words or Less
Understanding your home equity line of credit.

Get Your Finances in Order Before the New Year
The clock is ticking.

Q&A: Why you should keep credit use low

Dear Liz: You recently said you don’t need debt to have good credit, but I was told that “credit utilization” — the amount of credit you use compared with your credit limits — is important. Paying off the cards each month means zero balances are reported to the credit bureaus and result in no utilization. Also, older credit accounts help scores, and my older accounts dropped off after a period of time, lowering my average age of credit accounts to four years. How can I fix this? Good credit doesn’t stay on forever.

Answer: It’s not true that paying off your cards results in zero credit utilization. The balance that the card issuers report to the credit bureaus is typically the balance on your statement date. You could pay it off in full the very next day, and the statement date balance would still show up on your credit reports and get calculated into your credit scores.

That’s why it’s important to keep your credit utilization down, even if you pay in full (as you should). It’s good to keep charges below about 30% of your credit limit. Below 20% is even better, and below 10% is best.

Accounts typically won’t drop off your credit reports unless they’re closed. Even then, the closed accounts can remain on your credit reports for many years, contributing to the average age of your accounts. The key to having good scores is to keep a few accounts open and in use, not to carry debt.