Hoard cash if unemployment looms

Dear Liz: My husband and I have been aggressively paying down our debts and plan to be debt free by this time next year. We’re devoting about 20% of our income to debt repayment and saving about 6% (not much, I know, but we’re young and just starting out). We were building an emergency fund and currently have enough money in it to cover only a few months of our expenses, since we had to dip into it recently for unexpected car repairs.

My husband just lost his job. I make enough that we would just barely be able to cover all of our minimum payments and our bills, but my employer lost its biggest client and I may be out of a job soon too. Should we continue to make the same debt payments, reduce the amount or make only minimum payments until we are both securely employed?

Answer: As soon as you know that unemployment is a possibility, you should begin to conserve cash. That means making only the minimum payments on your debt and cutting your expenses to the bone. Although the job picture is improving, the average duration of unemployment is still close to 40 weeks. That’s a long time to go without a paycheck.

When you’re both employed again, you should reconsider your financial priorities. Getting out of debt is a great goal, but not all debt is created equal. Paying off credit cards should typically be a high priority, but you needn’t be in as much of a rush to pay off federal student loans, car loans or mortgages, because the rates on these debts is typically fixed and relatively low. Instead, make sure you’re taking advantage of retirement savings opportunities and building up a cash cushion to tide you through the next financial setback.

Could son’s unpaid bills harm parents’ credit? Maybe

Dear Liz: Our 24-year-old son lives with us. He failed out of college, has been fired from two restaurant jobs and is working part time at a grocery warehouse. He has neglected to pay his credit card for several months. He also waits until his cellphone carrier threatens to turn off his phone before he pays half of that bill. We are concerned that his poor payment history may start to reflect on our good credit histories. We are retired and may want to build a new house. His bills are sent to our address, and creditors call our home phone number looking for him.

Answer: His debts shouldn’t affect your credit reports and scores unless you cosigned loans or other credit accounts or added him as a joint user to your credit cards.

Note the word “shouldn’t.” It’s possible that an unethical collection agency would try to get you to pay these bills by posting the overdue accounts on your credit reports. That could negatively affect your scores. Check your credit reports at least once a year at http://www.annualcreditreport.com. You also may want to consider ongoing credit monitoring, which can alert you if any collections or other suspicious activity shows up on your reports.

Speaking of unethical actions, you need to consider the possibility that your son could steal your financial identity. He probably has access to the information he would need to open new accounts in your name, including your Social Security numbers. His failure to pay his bills, even though it appears he can, indicates some moral shortcomings. He may not be low enough to rip off his parents, but if you have any suspicions about his trustworthiness, consider putting a credit freeze (also known as a security freeze) on your credit reports. This freeze should prevent anyone from opening credit accounts in your name.

Finally, you can write letters to creditors telling them to stop contacting you. You run the risk that such a letter could lead a creditor to sue your son. But his creditors may sue him anyway if he doesn’t respond to their requests for payment.

Prepaid cards aren’t a great choice for travel

Dear Liz: I have been granted a Chapter 7 bankruptcy discharge of all my debts. I’m now debt free and plan to stay that way. I’ve been saving like crazy and have enough to afford a cross-country driving trip to attend my son’s wedding. I’d like your advice on using prepaid debit cards to cover expenses such as fuel, food and lodging. My plan is to load each of three cards with an amount of money to cover each category of expense, based on my best research estimates, as a means of controlling how much I spend. If you feel this is a good plan, which would be the best brand of card to use?

Answer: Your determination to stay out of debt is admirable, but prepaid cards are problematic. You don’t have the same federally mandated consumer protections you have with a debit or a credit card, so merchant disputes or a lost or stolen card can wind up costing you big time.

Furthermore, these cards can be expensive. You often pay to activate the card, to load it with cash and to access the cash in transactions. Card comparison site NerdWallet.com studied 40 popular prepaid debit cards and found that the average card cost nearly $300 annually in basic fees. Monthly fees of up to $14.95 took the biggest toll, but $1 to $2 fees per transaction and for ATM use could easily cost a typical user more than $20 a month.

If you’re convinced prepaid cards are the best money-management tool for your situation, though, you might want to choose the American Express Bluebird, which was dramatically less expensive than its competitors in the NerdWallet study. The Amex card charges no monthly or per-transaction fees and allows for direct deposit. ATM withdrawals cost $2 apiece and cash reloads are just a buck, compared with an average of $4.50 with other cards.

Eventually you may want to look into getting a secured credit card to help you rebuild your credit scores, since prepaid cards won’t help with that. A secured card is one in which you make a deposit at the issuing bank, usually between $200 and $1,000, and get a card with credit limit equal to your deposit. You don’t need to carry a balance on these cards, but you do need to have and use credit if you want to rehabilitate your battered credit. NerdWallet recommends the secured cards issued by Orchard Bank and Capital One.

Use windfall to pay down debt, boost savings

Dear Liz: I am closing a business deal that will net me just under $1 million. I have an interest-only loan on my home, two car loans and credit-card debt. My plan was to “clear the plate” and pay everything off, leaving me about $175,000. I am not worried about getting into further debt, as my wife and I are pretty grounded, but I wonder if I should be giving up the tax break of a mortgage. My wife and I make a fair income, so we will need advice on investment options as well.

Answer: You say you and your wife are “pretty grounded,” yet you carry a huge amount of debt, including a ticking time bomb of a mortgage.

Interest-only loans were quite fashionable in the boom years but make little sense for most people. That’s because the low initial payments ultimately reset much higher, as the interest-only period ends and the borrower must begin repaying principle.

Carrying credit-card debt is foolish as well, and a sign that you’re living beyond your apparently quite comfortable means.

Furthermore, you don’t say anything about your assets — whether you’re on track saving for retirement or if you have an adequate emergency fund. That would make a difference in how you should deploy this windfall. If your savings are inadequate, it would make sense to invest a good chunk of this money, even if it meant continuing to carry a mortgage. If you must have a home loan, though, it should be a traditional, fixed-rate version to avoid future payment shock.

The big danger is that you’ll pay off what you owe now, only to wind up deeper in debt in a few years because you haven’t changed your approach to money. Use some of your windfall to hire a fee-only (not fee-based) financial planner to review your situation. You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors (www.napfa.org).

How to stop collection calls

Dear Liz: About six months ago a debt collection agency started contacting me, by phone and the occasional letter, claiming that I have a past debt of about $20,000 that I owe to a bank card. I have never heard of this particular card or bank. I keep very accurate files, and I do not see this in my records. My credit scores hover around 720 to 740. How can I get them to stop contacting me?

Answer: If you don’t owe this money, send the collector a letter by certified mail, return receipt requested, stating that the debt isn’t yours and that you don’t want to be contacted again. It’s not unusual for a collection agency to dun the wrong person, and this may not be the end of it. Often, these poorly documented debts are resold, so you may have to tell the next collection agency the same thing.

If you did owe the money, you would want to tread more carefully. A collection agency would still have to honor a “do not contact me” letter, but sometimes these letters prompt the collectors to file lawsuits against debtors, said Gerri Detweiler, a credit expert with DebtCollectionAnswers.com. The collection agencies figure if they can’t negotiate payments with a borrower directly, they’ll use the court system to get the debtor to pay.