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Dear Liz: Each year, I track my estimated Social Security benefit on the SSA.gov website. At full retirement age of 67, my estimated benefit is $1,504. Is it true that my actual benefit may be reduced by 50% since I am married?

Answer: Good heavens, no.

If you’re married, your spouse may be entitled to a benefit that equals up to half of your check. But your check is not reduced to provide this spousal benefit. Instead, the Social Security Administration typically would calculate the benefit your spouse earned on his own, compare that to his spousal benefit, and then give him the larger of the two amounts.

If you have ex-spouses from marriages that lasted at least 10 years, they too could be entitled to spousal benefits. But those benefits wouldn’t reduce your check or your husband’s.

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Dear Liz: My wife and I accrued $28,000 of credit card debt over the past eight years. In addition to a sizable student loan bill for law school, our home mortgage and the expenses associated with three young children, we are struggling to get ahead enough to knock our credit card debt down. While we make good income between the two of us, it would seem not enough to pay more than the minimum on our debts. We have curbed a number of our bad habits (we eat out less, take lunch to work, say no to relatives) but the savings are not translating to lowered debt. Our 401(k)s are holding steady and we continue to contribute and I don’t want to touch those (I did when I was younger and regret it.). We’ve been considering taking out a home equity line of credit to pay off the cards and reduce the interest rate. Of course we have to be disciplined enough to not go out and create more debt, but I think my wife got the picture when I said no family vacations for the next few years. What are your thoughts?

Answer: You say, “Of course we have to be disciplined enough to not go out and create more debt,” but that’s exactly what many families do after they’ve used home equity borrowing to pay off their cards. They wind up deeper in the hole, plus they’ve put their home at risk to pay off debt that otherwise might be erased in Bankruptcy Court.

Bankruptcy probably isn’t in the cards for you, of course, given your resources. But before you use home equity to refinance this debt, you need to fix the problems that caused you to live so far beyond your means.

You’ve plugged some of the obvious leaks — eating out and mooching relatives — but you may be able to reduce other expenses, including your grocery and utility bills. If those smaller fixes don’t free up enough cash to start paying down the debt, the next places to look are at your big-ticket expenses: your home, your cars and your student loans. There may not be much you can do about the latter, although you should explore your options for consolidating and refinancing this debt. That leaves your home and your cars. If your payments on these two expenses are eating up more than about 35% of your income, then you should consider downsizing.

What you don’t want to do is to tap your retirement funds or reduce your contributions below the level that gets the full company match. Retirement needs to remain your top financial priority.

Reducing your lifestyle may not be appealing, but it’s better to sacrifice now while you’re younger than to wind up old and broke.

Thumbs upToday’s top story: The top personal financial planning websites. Also in the news: The dangers of free Wi-Fi, how to lower your health care costs, and tips on taxes for freelancers.

Top 5 Personal Financial Planning Websites
Putting it all on virtual paper.

Is Free Wi-Fi Dangerous?
Free Wi-Fi can end up quite costly.

5 Ways to Lower Your Health Care Bills
How to keep a lid on your health care costs.

Freelancers, Here’s How To Do Your Taxes
One of the downsides of freelancing life.

If You Can’t Understand a Financial Move in Five Minutes, Wait First
Waiting could save you from making a big mistake.

Categories : Liz's Blog
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currencyToday’s top story: How to avoid currency exchange fees while traveling. Also in the news: How finances can reveal an unfaithful spouse, howto avoid ruining your retirement plan, and why it’s so important to include your digital assets in your estate planning.

5 money saving tips for exchanging currency
How to save on fees during your overseas travel.

11 Financial Signs Your Spouse is Cheating on You
There’s always a paper trail.

4 Ways to Ruin Your Retirement Plan
You’ll want to avoid these.

5 ways to protect your online assets
The importance of including your online accounts in your estate plan.

10 steps to take if you hope to retire soon
The sooner you start, the better off you’ll be.

Categories : Liz's Blog
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homebuyerToday’s top story: How to purchase a home in a tough real estate market. Also in the news: Keeping your credit cards safe, important retirement milestones, and why you should avoid bad credit loans.

How to Buy a Home in a Competitive Real Estate Market
Getting the right lender is crucial.

The Everyday Household Item That Can Keep Your Credit Card Safe
You’ll never look at a bag of coffee the same way again.

Top 7 Retirement Milestones You Need to Know
Retirement planning doesn’t end when you get the gold watch.

5 Types of Bad Credit Loans to Avoid
The quick fix will be painful in the long run.

Don’t Wait: 6 Good Financial Habits for 30-Somethings
The sooner you start, the better off you’ll be.

Categories : Liz's Blog
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hotel-checkoutToday’s top story: 9 ways hotels try to grab your cash. Also in the news: What it costs to close your bank account, how to pay off your high interest credit card debt, and what you need to know before purchasing life insurance.

9 Hotel Gotchas
Don’t get caught by surprise while traveling this summer.

The Costs of Closing Your Bank Account
Here come the fees.

Ways to Pay Off High-Interest Debt
Start chipping away.

10 things life insurance agents won’t say
Educate yourself before purchasing a plan.

4 big ways your expenses could rise in retirement
Travel is one of them.

Categories : Liz's Blog
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crop380w_istock_000009258023xsmall-dbet-ball-and-chainToday’s top story: Becoming debt free and staying that way. Also in the news: How to find the leaks in your budget, six ways to become “rich”, and what to do if you need a credit increase.

How to Become Debt-Free — and Stay That Way
It’s not as impossible as it sounds.

How to Find & Fix Your Budget Leaks
Sealing the money drips.

6 ways to become rich without even trying
Well, maybe a little trying.

Need Some Flexibility? 6 Ways to Increase Your Credit Limit
Proceed with caution.

Disability Benefits: How Social Security Decides If You Deserve Them
Deciphering the formula.

Categories : Liz's Blog
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Q&A: Work from home jobs

Jul 14, 2014 | | Comments (0)

Dear Liz: Are there legitimate “work from home” Internet job opportunities, or are all those advertisements just scams?

Answer: You should be skeptical of advertisements in general and particularly advertisements about an area as scam-filled as work-from-home opportunities.

Yes, many people make a living working from home. They’re typically employees of companies that allow them to telecommute, or they’ve launched successful businesses or they’re answering phones for a call center. They are not unskilled people making a killing at jobs that require little effort, which seems to be what most of the scams promote.

You can research legitimate opportunities by starting with legitimate websites. AARP, Bankrate.com and Kiplinger all have good articles on the topic.

Categories : Q&A
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Q&A: How to escape a timeshare

Jul 14, 2014 | | Comments (3)

Dear Liz: How do I walk away from a timeshare? It’s paid off but we have yearly maintenance fees that are now $3,600 each year. This will be prohibitive in retirement, and it’s quite a burden now. The developer won’t let us give it back, and we can’t sell it because the resale companies are sharks that demand money upfront. Can they ruin our credit if we stop paying? Is there any way to protect ourselves?

Answer: If you stop paying your annual maintenance fees, your account can be turned over to a collection agency. That will trash your credit, and you could be sued.

Many people who buy timeshares don’t realize they’re making a lifetime commitment, said Brian Rogers, owner and operator of Timeshare Users Group. Even after any loans to buy the timeshare are paid off, owners owe maintenance fees on the property. Maintenance fees typically rise over time and may be supplemented by special assessments to repair or upgrade resorts as they age.

The good news is that you may be able to get out from under these fees by selling your timeshare, and you don’t have to use a resale company that charges an upfront fee. In fact, you shouldn’t, since those arrangements are frequently scams, Rogers said.

The amount you’re paying indicates that you own a timeshare at an upscale resort. (The average maintenance fee is closer to $800 a year, Rogers said.) If that’s the case, your timeshare may have some value, even if it’s only a tiny fraction of what you paid. Owners at less desirable resorts often find they can sell their timeshares for only $1, and may have to pay others to take the timeshares off their hands.

You can list your timeshare for sale at no or low cost on EBay, Craigslist, RedWeek or Timeshare Users Group, among other sites. To get some idea of what it’s worth, enter the name of the resort into EBay’s search engine and click on the “completed sales” box on the lower left side of the page. Timeshare Users Group and RedWeek offer additional advice on selling timeshares.

You also could consider renting out your timeshare, using those same sites. Many owners discover they can offset or even completely cover their maintenance fees through such rentals, Rogers said.

Categories : Q&A, Real Estate
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Q&A: How to fund a Roth IRA

Jul 14, 2014 | | Comments (0)

Dear Liz: I have quite a bit invested in stocks in a regular brokerage account. I’ve held them for many years, and to sell them would mean huge capital gains taxes. I’d like to move some of these into a Roth IRA, so that I can avoid paying taxes on their appreciation and dividends, since I plan to hold these for quite some time. Is it possible to move these stocks into a Roth IRA without selling and repurchasing?

Answer: Nope. Uncle Sam typically gets his due, with one major exception.

Roths have to be funded with cash, and direct contributions are limited to $5,500 per person per year, plus a $1,000 catch-up contribution for those 50 and over. Your contributions would be further limited once your modified adjusted gross income exceeds $181,000 for married couples and $114,000 for singles, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for tax research firm CCH Tax & Accounting North America. A big-enough capital gain, on top of your regular income, could push you over those limits.

If you want to avoid paying capital gains, just hold the investments until your death. Your heirs will get the investments at their market value and can sell them immediately without owing any capital gains. There may be other taxes involved, however. If your estate is worth more than $5 million, it may owe estate taxes, and a few states levy inheritance taxes on heirs.

Categories : Investing, Q&A, Retirement
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