Monday’s need-to-know money news

refinancingToday’s top story: How to find and finance bank-owned properties. Also in the news: Tips for handling holiday financial stress, how to have the money talk with your parents, and what to do when financial aid and scholarships don’t fully cover course fees.

How to find and finance bank-owned properties
It’s easier than you might think.

5 tips for handling holiday financial stress
Don’t let stress ruin the holidays.

How to have the ‘money talk’ with your parents
Tackling a difficult subject.

Financial Aid and Scholarships Don’t Always Cover Course Fees
Making sure you can cover your costs.

Times when money isn’t real

Money is money, whether it’s cash in our hands, plastic cards at checkout counters or encrypted bits of data coursing between computers on the internet.

But our brains don’t view all money as equal, thanks to what behavioral economists call “cognitive biases”:

—We spend cash more carefully than plastic.

—We regard tax refunds as a windfall rather than a return of what we earned.

—We’d rather have money now than more money later.

Sometimes our illusions about money can be harnessed for good. The “Save More Tomorrow” program, created by economists Richard H. Thaler and Shlomo Benartzi, has people commit to increasing their retirement contributions starting one year in the future. In the economists’ initial study , workers who agreed to save future dollars nearly quadrupled their savings rate in four years.

In my latest for the Associated Press, why our money illusions usually work against us.

Q&A: Where to find help with managing your finances

Dear Liz: I am a mid-30s single woman who needs accountability in managing my finances and paying down debt. I have about $7,000 in credit card debt and $9,000 in student loans and I earn $55,000 a year. I feel as though I may have the financial means to do this but require a knowledgeable, structured approach. I’d like to work with someone to set up a plan and help me stay on track with it. I’ve considered trying LearnVest as well as smaller privately owned financial planning companies and a financial coach. Do you have any recommendations for finding assistance that could best suit my needs? Does what I’m looking for even exist?

Answer: It’s not always easy to find a fee-only financial planner who will help with budgeting and debt repayment. Many advisors cater to high net worth individuals who typically don’t have the same cash-flow issues as middle Americans.

The Garrett Planning Network offers referrals to fee-only planners who charge by the hour at www.garrettplanningnetwork.com. These advisors have the certified financial planner credential and, unlike many other fee-only planners, don’t have minimum asset requirements for new clients. You can interview a few prospects by phone to get an idea of the cost, but expect to spend at least a few hundred dollars to get started and then hourly fees for ongoing help.

If you’re OK not meeting with your advisor in person, LearnVest offers email access to a dedicated advisor who is either a certified financial planner or a registered investment advisor representative. For a $299 setup fee and a $19 monthly fee, you’ll get a customized financial plan as well as step-by-step instructions for implementing it.

Another option to consider is a nonprofit credit counselor. These agencies offer debt management plans for those who struggle to pay their credit card bills, but many also offer budgeting classes and financial coaching. You can get referrals from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at www.nfcc.org. Your initial meeting with a counselor will be free. If you opt for a debt repayment program, the enrollment cost is capped at $75 and the monthly fee at $50, although many agencies charge less.

Q&A: Sheltering home profits

Dear Liz: I understand that the profit realized on the sale of a home is not subject to tax, as long as that money is reinvested in another home. What if the couple divorces before or after the sale? If they split the profit from the sale and one or both put those funds into another house as single buyers, is each exempt from the tax? Does the fact that both are in their 70s have any effect on this matter?

Answer: Your information about home sale profits is about 20 years out of date. In 1997, Congress changed the law that once allowed people 55 and older to roll up to $125,000 of home sale profits into another home tax-free. That was a one-time tax break.

Now you can shelter up to $250,000 per person in home sale profits before owing any tax, and you can use the tax break repeatedly. You have to live in the home for at least two of the previous five years to qualify for the exemption.

Divorce can change your tax situation dramatically, and you don’t want to make decisions based on obsolete information. Please consult a tax professional to make sure you understand all of the implications of your split.

Q&A: Remarrying late in life

Dear Liz: This is regarding the letter from the children worried about their widowed father remarrying. My father remarried a year after my mother died. He was 86. His wife and her family gave him love, care and companionship until his death at 93. I gained a wonderful new family whom I love. Once my dad asked how I would feel if he included his wife in his will. My response was that it was his money and he should do whatever he wanted. He raised me, sent me to college and was a kind and caring person. He owed me nothing else.

Answer: Thank you for sharing your positive experience with your stepmother and her family. Late-in-life companionship can be a real blessing.

Unfortunately, some predators target lonely older people and isolate them from their families as a way to get control of their finances. The predator paints the children’s attempts to intervene as “proof” of their greed. The original letter writers had seen this scenario play out in other families and hoped to avoid it in their own.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

smartphones_financeToday’s top story: A good retirement savings option for the self-employed. Also in the news: Jobs that could mark you as a risk for late payments, what to ask before giving a cell phone as a gift, and the financial perks of not celebrating Christmas.

A Good Retirement Savings Option for the Self-Employed
Consider a Solo 401(k).

Study: These Jobs Could Mark You as a Risk for Late Payments on Personal Loans
Is yours on the list?

Ask These Questions Before Giving a Cell Phone This Season
What you need to know before making a purchase.

The Financial Perks of Not Celebrating Christmas
The upside to being The Grinch.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

twrmn81mopj80nvlk4zqToday’s top story: Manage your debt for a smoother divorce. Also in the news: Giving your child the gift of stocks, how to donate credit card points and miles to charity, and six ways to make the most of your holiday bonus.

Manage Your Debt for a Smoother Divorce
Making a difficult situation a bit easier.

Give Your Child the Gift of Stocks
The gift that keeps on giving.

How to Donate Credit Card Points, Miles or Cash Back to Charity
Put those forgotten miles to good use.

6 Ways to Make the Most of Your Holiday Bonus
Stretching it out.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to make successful financial resolutions in 2017. Also in the news: 5 insurance coverage gaps that could cost you, what to know before giving and accepting money from relatives, and 10 psychological retail tricks that make you spend more money.

How to Make Successful Resolutions in 2017
Stick with it.

Insurance Blind Spots: 5 Coverage Gaps That Could Cost You
Making sure you’re covered.

What to Know Before Giving and Accepting Money From Relatives
Know what you’re getting into.

10 psychological retail tricks that make you spend more money
Don’t fall for them.

Gift cards aren’t gifts

gift-cardsIf it’s the thought that counts, then gift cards don’t count much at all.

They’re popular, granted. Six out of 10 people responding to National Retail Federation surveys this year said they wanted to receive gift cards for the holidays, and more than half said they planned to give them.

The rest of us may think of gift cards as a cop-out. Gift cards are what you give when you don’t have a clue what makes the recipient tick and can’t trouble yourself to find out.

In my latest for the Associated Press, why it makes more sense to give cash this holiday season instead of gift cards, and why the search for the perfect gift still matters.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

shutterstock_38185810-2Today’s top story: How to tell your checking account is the right fit. Also in the news: Tips for handling holiday financial stress, financial concepts you’ll actually use, and important things to know about 529 college savings plan withdrawals.

5 Ways to Tell If Your Checking Account’s the Right Fit
Avoid excess fees.

5 Tips for Handling Holiday Financial Stress
More celebrating, less stressing.

6 Financial Concepts You’ll Actually Use
Applying concepts to everyday life.

4 important things to know about 529 College Savings Plan withdrawals
They aren’t necessarily tax-free.