Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Are these 5 things worth credit card debt?
Also in the news:
What Millennials should consider about life insurance, 5 gas-saving “tips” that don’t work, and what to tell high schoolers about money.

Are These 5 Things Worth Credit Card Debt?
Paying off your wedding on your 20th anniversary.

Life Insurance and Millennials — What to Consider Now
Looking and planning ahead.

These 5 Gas-Saving ‘Tips’ Don’t Work
You can leave the AC on.

What to Tell High Schoolers About Money
Thinking outside the box.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 4 blunders to avoid when doing your own taxes. Also in the news: What to do if your W-2 is missing, 6 key investing concepts, and why there’s no such thing as a dumb question when it comes to money.

Doing Your Own Taxes? Pros Say Avoid These 4 Blunders
Getting it right the first time.

What to Do If Your W-2 Is MIA
You have options.

6 Investing Key Concepts — in Plain English
Understanding the basics.

Don’t Let the Fear of Looking Stupid Lead to Money Mistakes
There’s no such thing as a dumb question.

Q&A: A ‘poor man’s trust’ may be a poor estate plan

Dear Liz: I am 85 and my wife is 76. We have a house free of mortgage worth about $1 million. We have market investments above $4 million and life insurance of $1 million. We do not have a trust, just a will. Our financial advisor says that we do not need a trust because we have named both of our grown children as beneficiaries on all of our accounts and on the deed to our house. Please advise us if a trust is needed in our situation or if we are fine the way things are set up.

Answer: If your financial advisor is an estate-planning attorney, he or she may be correct. Otherwise, you’d be smart to seek out a lawyer experienced in these matters to review what you’ve done.

Naming beneficiaries on financial accounts, and on deeds in states that allow that, can allow those assets to pass to heirs without going through probate. So-called transfer-on-death accounts and deeds are sometimes called “the poor man’s trust.” You’re far from poor, though, and a living trust may be a better option for distributing your wealth because there are many ways the current arrangement could go wrong.

The surviving spouse, for example, could change the beneficiaries. You both may be of sound mind now, but there’s no guarantee you’ll remain so. Fraud experts can tell story after story of caregivers, relatives, friends, advisors and romantic interests persuading a vulnerable older person to change beneficiaries in favor of the interloper. A living trust that bypasses probate can include language to prevent your children from being completely disinherited.

Another potential problem: paying funeral costs and the expenses of settling the estate. If everything does go to the kids at the survivor’s death, the executor may have to go after them to return some of the money.

This column isn’t long enough to detail all the other ways transfer-on-death arrangements can misfire, so you’ll want to make an appointment with an experienced estate-planning attorney soon.

Q&A: Building an emergency fund beats out building credit

Dear Liz: I am trying to raise my credit scores, which are very low. I have one negative mark on my account from a paid collection and I just got my first secured credit card. I have a bit of extra money right now and I’m wondering what’s the best way to use it to raise my scores. Should I get another secured credit card from a different issuer, get a secured 12-month loan through my financial institution or something else?

Answer: People rebuilding their credit often overlook the importance of an emergency fund. Having even a small amount of savings can keep a financial setback, such as a decrease in income or an unexpected expense, from causing you to miss a payment and undoing all your efforts to boost your scores. You can start with just a few hundred dollars and slowly build the fund over time.

Adding an installment loan can assist with building credit as well, but a secured loan may not be the best option if money is tight. The cash you deposit with the lender as collateral for the loan won’t be available again until you pay off the loan. Consider instead a credit-builder loan, in which the money you borrow is placed in a savings account or certificate of deposit to be claimed when you’ve finished making the monthly payments, typically after one year. That means you can keep the cash you already have for emergencies. Credit-builder loans are available from some credit unions and Self Lender, an online company.

You’ll want to make sure both the credit card issuer and the installment loan lender are reporting your payments to the three credit bureaus. If your accounts don’t show up on your credit reports, they’re not helping to build your scores.

In addition to making payments on time, you’ll want to avoid using too much of the available credit on the card. There’s no bright line for how much to charge, but typically 30% or less is good, 20% or less is better and 10% or less is best. Use the card lightly but regularly and pay it off in full every month because there’s no advantage to carrying a balance.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 2018 US Olympians open up about their money struggles. Also in the news: Tax forms to know about before filing your return, how to keep your tax preparer from hating you, and 10 cities where taxpayers receive the fattest refund checks.

2018 US Olympians Open Up About Money Struggles
Star athletes paid very little.

Tax Forms to Know About Before Filing Your Return
The most popular forms, explained.

How to Keep Your Tax Preparer From Hating You
Come prepared.

10 cities where taxpayers receive the fattest refund checks
Did yours make the list?

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Why many consumers still #BankBlack. Also in the news: 3 reasons to choose a credit card over debit, how and why to use the Equifax free credit lock app, and how to review and dispute the salary data Equifax collects on you.

Here’s Why Many Still #BankBlack, Despite Fewer Options
Providing needed access.

3 Reasons to Choose a Credit Card Over Debit — and When Not To
Using your card strategically.

How and Why to Use the Equifax Free Credit Lock App
Locking your credit vs freezing it.

How to Review (and Dispute) the Salary Data Equifax Collects on You
Credit bureaus want your salary info.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Why couples need their own slush fund. Also in the news: 5 signs it’s time to break up with your financial advisor, easy home touch-ups to bring in more buyers, and the dark reason so many millennials are miserable and broke.

Why Couples Need Their Own Slush Funds
Separate doesn’t have to mean secret.

5 Signs It’s Time to Break Up With Your Financial Advisor
What to look out for.

Easy Home Touch-Ups to Bring All the Buyers to Your Yard
Giving your home more curb appeal.

The dark reason so many millennials are miserable and broke
Social media is taking a toll.

You can do your own estate plan, but should you?

Estate planning mistakes can be expensive to fix — that is, when they can be fixed at all.

That’s the thought that haunts New York attorney Mari Galvin whether she’s creating an estate plan for a client or confronting the aftermath when people didn’t properly plan.

“People think, ‘Oh, I have a simple life,’ but you have to understand (that if) you make a mistake and you have unintended results, you can’t bring the person back to sign a new will,” says Galvin, a partner at Cassin & Cassin law firm.

In my latest for the Associated Press, why trying to save money by doing your own estate planning can cost big bucks down the line.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: More credit cards pile on rewards for mobile wallet spending. Also in the news: Dog-friendly designs attract home buyers and remodelers, new rules to help protect old Americans from financial fraud, and the reckless financial habit that will ruin your chances of ever finding love.

More Credit Cards Pile on Rewards for Mobile Wallet Spending
Perks for paying with your phone.

Dog-Friendly Designs Attract Home Buyers and Remodelers
Not your typical dog house.

These new rules will help protect older Americans from financial fraud
New protections put in place.

This reckless financial habit will ruin your chances of ever finding love
Show some restraint.

Q&A: Here are some ways you can improve your credit scores

Dear Liz: Two years ago I got out of prison after being there for nine years. I lost everything that I had. When I got out, my credit rating was 565. I recently bought a car and have made four payments so far. Can you tell me when I might have good credit again?

Answer: As long as you continue to make on-time payments, you should see gradual improvement in your scores. It’s impossible to predict how long it might take to achieve “good” scores, though. That depends on the information that’s in your credit reports, what credit score formula is used and what’s considered “good” by whichever lender is evaluating your application.

You should first make sure your payments are being reported to all three credit bureaus. Unfortunately, some car dealerships that specialize in bad-credit lending don’t report their loans, which means your payments wouldn’t be helping your scores. If that’s the case, consider getting a credit builder loan. These loans, typically offered by credit bureaus, put the amount you borrow into a savings account that you can claim after making 12 monthly payments.

Payments should always be made on time, by the way. A big chunk of your credit scores is determined by your payment history. Your low scores mean you fell seriously behind on your obligations, but even a single skipped payment can hurt. Consider putting payments on automatic so there’s no chance of a lapse.

Another large portion of your scores is determined by credit utilization, or how much of your available credit you’re using. Paying down an installment loan over time helps that ratio. So, too, does paying down or lightly using a revolving account such as a credit card. If you don’t have a card, consider applying for one. There may be a small initial hit to your credit scores, but that will fade quickly. People with bad credit often need to start with a secured credit card, which requires you to deposit a certain amount — typically $200 or more — with the issuing bank. Use only a small portion of your available credit — 30% or less is good, 20% or less is better, 10% or less is best. Pay the bill in full each month, since there’s no advantage to carrying a balance.

Another way to speed up your credit rehabilitation is to be added as an authorized user to the credit card of someone with a solid credit history. This other person doesn’t have to give you access to the card itself, but naming you as an authorized user may allow that person’s history with the card to be imported into your credit reports. Not all credit card issuers report this information, though, so the primary cardholder would need to ask. It’s also important that the other person continue to behave responsibly with credit. If the primary cardholder misses a payment or maxes out the card, your scores could be hurt, too.

You can track your progress using one of the many websites offering free credit scores. Your bank or the credit card issuer may offer free scores as well. The scores likely won’t be the same score a lender might use to evaluate you, but they should give you a general idea of where you stand.