Dear Liz: I will be inheriting around $300,000 over the next year. My instincts are to pay down debt with this money. I have two homes and for practical reasons need to keep them. One home has a $260,000 mortgage balance at 5%. The other has a $130,000 mortgage at 4%. We have $35,000 in credit card balances. Some are telling us to invest. I think we should pay off all the credit cards and then pay down the larger mortgage by $100,000 or more. Am I on the right track?
Answer: Paying off your whopping credit card debt is a great idea. You need to figure out, though, what caused you to rack up so much debt and fix that problem. Otherwise, you’re likely to find yourself back in the hole.
Paying down a mortgage is a trickier proposition. Most people have better things to do with their money than prepay a low-rate, tax-deductible debt. Before they consider doing so, they should make sure they’re saving adequately for retirement, that all their other debt is paid off, that they have a substantial emergency fund of at least six months’ worth of expenses, and that they’re adequately insured with appropriate health, property, life and disability coverage. Those with children should think about funding a college savings plan.
If you’ve covered all these bases, then paying down and perhaps refinancing the larger mortgage makes sense.
Dear Liz: My 401(k) plan has grown exceptionally well this year. I think we all know that it can’t last. I just recently heard about self-directed IRAs. I was intrigued at the possibility of opening one by rolling over a portion of my 401(k) money directly. The problem is, my company’s 401(k) provider will not allow the direct rollover of funds. Is there an alternative means of withdrawing 401(k) funds without penalty and still get them into a self-directed IRA?
Answer: You can quit your job. Otherwise, withdrawals while you’re still employed with your company will trigger taxes and probably penalties.
Your premise for wanting to open a self-directed IRA is a bit misguided, in any case. Your 401(k) balance may occasionally drop because of fluctuations in your stock and bond markets, but over the long term you should see growth.
You may have been sold on the idea that self-directed IRAs would somehow be less risky. Some companies promote self-directed IRAs as a way to invest in real estate, precious metals or other investments not commonly available in 401(k) plans. The fees these companies charge as custodians for such accounts are usually much higher than what they could charge as traditional IRA custodians, so they have a pretty powerful incentive for talking you into transferring your money to them.
The problem is that you could wind up less diversified, and therefore in a riskier position, if you dump a lot of your retirement money into any alternative investment. It’s one thing for a wealthy investor to have a self-directed IRA that invests in mortgages or gold, assuming that he or she has plenty of money in more traditional investments. It’s quite another if all you have is your 401(k) and you’re putting much more than 10% into a single investment.
Also, there’s a lot less regulation and scrutiny with self-directed IRAs than with 401(k)s, which increases the possibility of fraud. (Southern California investors may remember First Pension Corp. of Irvine, a self-directed IRA administrator that turned out to be a Ponzi scheme.) So you’d need to pick your custodian, and your investments, carefully. You also would need to understand the IRS rules for such accounts, because certain investments — such as buying real estate or other property for your own use — aren’t allowed.
If you’re determined to diversify your investments in ways your current 401(k) doesn’t allow, you can open a regular IRA at any brokerage and select from a wider variety of investment options. Or you can look for a self-directed IRA option with low minimum investment requirements to start.
Dear Liz: We took a home equity loan against our house to open a business in 2006. We also ran up credit card debt for the business. The business went under, and we’re struggling to pay off the loan, which is $150,000 (a $1,150 payment every month), and the credit card debt, which we got down to about $20,000 from $37,000. Is there any way to get relief from the loan since it was a legitimate business (a franchise we bought from another franchisee)? We don’t know what to do and have been taking money out of our savings to pay the debt.
Answer: Your home equity lender doesn’t care whether you spent the money on a “legitimate business” or an around-the-world cruise. The lender expects to get paid, and chances are it will, since you secured the loan with your house. Failing to pay a home equity loan can trigger a foreclosure.
If you have equity in your home, you may be able to do a cash-out refinance of your current mortgage to pay off the loan. You’d wind up with a bigger primary mortgage, but a longer payback period and a lower interest rate should reduce your total debt payments. Another option is to sell your home to pay off the debt so you can start over.
What you shouldn’t do is dip into your savings without a real strategy for resolving this debt. A session with a fee-only financial planner could help you understand your options. The planner also may suggest a consultation with a bankruptcy attorney.
Dear Liz: I’m a single mom with three kids. My mortgage is $1,700. My other monthly bills include $355 for a car loan, $755 for school tuition, $350 for utilities, $790 for credit cards, $200 for gas, $208 for braces and $235 for a 401(k) contribution. This leaves no money for food. I get no child support. How can I pay down my credit card debt? I don’t have any money for a baby sitter or I could get a second job.
Answer: The way you pay down credit card debt is by reducing expenses and increasing income to free up extra cash. If that’s not possible, you may need to consider bankruptcy, given the amount of debt you’re carrying.
If you’re paying only the minimums on your credit cards, that monthly bill indicates you have close to $40,000 in credit card debt. Since you can’t cover your basic expenses, you’re probably adding to that debt pile every month. That needs to stop.
You don’t say why you aren’t receiving child support, but if the father isn’t dead or disabled he should be helping to support his kids. Your state has an enforcement agency that can help you. Child support enforcement is often part of a state’s social services department, although it may also be offered by the state attorney general or its revenue (tax) department.
One obvious, if painful, place to trim is private school tuition. If the school can’t offer you financial aid, you should consider placing your kids in the best public school you can manage.
What you don’t want to do is trim your retirement plan contribution. You’re probably getting a company match, which is free money you’ll need to sustain yourself in retirement.
In general, your “must have” expenses — shelter, transportation, food, utilities, insurance and minimum loan payments — should equal no more than 50% of your after-tax income. If your must-haves exceed that level, it will be tough to make ends meet, particularly if you’re trying to pay off debt and save for the future.
Dear Liz: You had an interesting column recently about the filial responsibility laws that most states have on their books requiring adult children to support indigent parents. I have friends that transferred their parents’ funds to the grandchildren so the parents will qualify for Medicaid. Doesn’t the government see through this scam? Besides being unethical, it should be illegal.
Answer: The government does indeed see through transparent attempts to artificially impoverish older people to qualify for Medicaid, which offers nursing home care for the indigent.
Medicaid has “look back” rules that examine asset transfers made within the previous five years. Transfers made during that period can delay the older person’s eligibility for the program. In other words, your friends’ maneuvers may well backfire. You should advise them to consult an elder law attorney. Referrals are available from the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys at http://www.naela.org.
Dear Liz: In your answer about filial responsibility, your statement that the letter writer’s financial situation is the result of her own choices and that she needs to stop blaming her parents is completely misjudged and inappropriate. Clearly, the writer is not blaming the parents and seems amazingly strong and clear thinking for one with her early background.
Answer: Here’s what the writer wrote about her situation:
“I am an only child in my late 30s and received no financial help from [my mother] from the age of 18. In addition, my father died when I was very young, leaving us fairly destitute with no life insurance. I feel that both of these legacies have contributed to my less-than-optimal financial situation.”
The writer goes on to say that she’s trying to catch up financially but she feels it would be futile because she may have to support her mother in the future.
The writer started her adult life at a financial disadvantage compared with people whose parents helped them pay for college. She may now regret the choices she made — perhaps she took on too much student loan debt or spent more than she earned to make up for early deprivation. Those were her choices, however, and at some point she needs to take responsibility for them. Twenty years later, it’s time to let go of the idea that her financial situation is her parents’ fault.
Dear Liz: I currently have a 401(k) and an IRA, but want something more. A longtime CPA, who is very close to our family, recommended that I buy some stocks, but I’m unsure how to go about this.
Answer: When you’re investing, it’s important to be diversified. That means you should spread your money among different types of investments so you don’t have all your eggs in one basket, so to speak.
You’d need hundreds of thousands of dollars to be properly diversified with individual stocks. When you’re just starting out, it’s a lot smarter to buy mutual funds or exchange-traded funds that invest in a wide variety of stocks. Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF, for example, invests in more than 3,600 companies and has an ultra-low expense ratio of just 0.05%.
The fees you pay for your investments are important, since high expenses can dramatically reduce your total returns. Funds that try to beat the market, rather than match it, often engage in a lot of trading that drives up costs. Funds sold through full-service brokerages can carry high expenses as well.
So look for a discount brokerage that allows you to invest with minimal fees and commissions. Or consider one of the new breed of online advisors, such as Betterment or Wealthfront, that offers a low-cost basket of investments that are selected, monitored and rebalanced using sophisticated technology.
Dear Liz: What is your opinion of debt reduction programs? I am constantly receiving mail from various companies, and I was wondering if they are legit. They claim they can reduce my debt, which sounds promising, but I am hesitant to get involved with them.
Answer: You’ve got good instincts.
Many of the companies sending out these solicitations say they can settle your debt for pennies on the dollar. What they often fail to mention is that the debt settlement process can result in your being sued by your creditors and having your credit trashed. That’s assuming they try to settle your debt at all, rather than just disappearing with any money you pay them in advance.
If you’re struggling with too much debt, you should make two appointments: one with a legitimate credit counselor (visit the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at http://www.nfcc.org for referrals) to see whether you qualify for a debt management program to repay your credit card debt, and another with a bankruptcy attorney (check the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at http://www.nacba.org for referrals) to see whether a bankruptcy filing might be appropriate for your situation.
Dear Liz: I have heard that you should never close credit card accounts of your own volition because that can hurt your credit scores. Are there any exceptions? I received a credit card several years ago, when my credit scores were in the toilet because of a number of collection accounts and delinquencies. I had no other open credit cards, so when they offered me unsecured credit, I accepted it willingly. The interest rate was (and is) 23.99%, and I was charged a $72 annual fee. Now, six years later, my credit scores are greatly increased. But you would never know it by this issuer. They have refused my request to lower the interest rate, and the annual fee has now gone up to $99 a year. My credit limit is $2,100 and a credit line increase of $150 would cost me a $14.95 fee. Under these circumstances, would you still counsel not to close this account?
Answer: Closing credit accounts won’t help your credit scores and may hurt them. But that doesn’t mean you should never close an account.
If you have several other credit cards, your credit scores probably won’t suffer much of a hit from a single account closure and will recover quickly from any damage done. You don’t want to close accounts if you’re still trying to improve your scores or if you’re in the market for a major loan, such as a mortgage or auto loan. Otherwise, though, there’s no reason to continuing paying for a card you no longer need.
If this is still your only credit card, you should use your good scores to open one or two cards with better deals. Then you can say good riddance to this one.