Q&A: State tax breaks for 529 plans

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question from grandparents who were contributing $20,000 to their grandson’s college education. You correctly told them they did not qualify fdownloador federal education tax credits or deductions because he was not a dependent. You might let grandparents know, however, that they may get a state tax break for contributing to a 529 college savings plan.

Answer: Most states that have state income taxes offer some sort of a tax break for 529 college savings plan contributions. (The exceptions are California, Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey and North Carolina, according to SavingForCollege.com. Tennessee has a tax on interest and dividends but no 529 tax break.) In some states, even short-term contributions qualify for a deduction, so grandparents could contribute money that’s quickly withdrawn to pay qualified higher education expenses and still get the break. SavingForCollege has details on each state’s tax benefits.

Q&A: Thrift Savings Plan

Dear Liz: I am a federal government retiree with a very small retirement account in the Thrift Savings Plan. Where can I invest my small savings so it can safely grow? The balance has not changed for over six months now. If I keep it in the Thrift Savings Plan, what fund is the safest?

Answer: “Safe growth” is an oxymoron. If your balance isn’t changing, then you’re probably in the safest option — which means you won’t see much if any growth in the future, either.

You probably chose TSP’s G Fund, which invests in Treasury securities. You won’t lose money, but you probably won’t earn enough to offset inflation. If you want your money to grow, you need to have at least some of your retirement account in stocks.

Fortunately, the plan offers several “L” or lifestyle funds geared to when you expect to begin withdrawals. L funds offer professional management and a mix of investments that grow more conservative as that date approaches. Retirees who are tapping their accounts typically invest in the L Income fund, which has about 20% of its balance in stocks. If you are five years or more away from using the funds, the next most conservative lifestyle option is L 2020, which has half of its total invested in stocks.

Q&A: Paying for credit repair

Dear Liz: I’m seeking help in reviewing my credit report and how to fix any issues. I am not financially distressed, but have FICO scores in the 675 range. Could you recommend someone I can hire to assist as I need to refinance a house I bought for cash?

Answer: There’s so much fraud in the credit repair industry that you’re likely better off doing it yourself rather than exposing yourself to rip-offs.

Credit repair companies aren’t supposed to take money upfront or promise things they can’t deliver, but many do.

One of the scammers’ most common ploys is to flood the credit bureau with disputes and to take credit for any negative information that temporarily disappears. By the time the negative information pops back up on the file, the scam artists have disappeared with your money.

Another approach they recommend is starting over with a “clean” slate, sometimes using borrowed or stolen identification numbers. That’s fraud, and even if it works, you’ll often find yourself worse off with no credit history than with a flawed history.

The Federal Trade Commission has some helpful advice on do-it-yourself credit repair.

You’ll need to first get copies of your credit reports from each of the three credit bureaus, which you can do once a year for free at www.annualcreditreport.com. Dispute any inaccurate information, such as collection accounts that aren’t yours or late payments that you made on time.

Follow up with any creditors that persist in reporting bogus information.

One relatively fast way to improve your scores is to pay down any credit card debt to 10% or less of the accounts’ credit limits. Don’t close any accounts while trying to improve your scores, since that won’t help your score and could hurt.

Opening new accounts can ding your scores as well, but it can be worth it to add another credit card to the mix if you only have one or two.

Q&A: Shopping for insurance

Dear Liz: I pay about $670 per month for insurance for four cars, our home and a $1-million umbrella policy. We’ve been with the same well-known national insurance company for over 30 years. About five years ago, I checked with another well-known national insurance company about the estimated total premium, which was not significantly different from what I paid.
We filed a claim for a very minor accident about two years ago. My 21-year-old son, 17-year-old daughter, my wife and I drive these cars.

Should I have my coverage reviewed by another company?

Answer: Of course you should. And you should check with more than one.

Premiums can differ dramatically, particularly for younger drivers. A recent Consumer Reports investigation found that although some companies doubled or even tripled auto insurance rates for a teen driver, others barely budged.

Premiums also can change over time as insurers try to build or protect their profits. Insurers will lower premiums to attract more business and raise them to cut losses.

Price isn’t the only thing you should consider. Customer service is important too, so review your state’s complaint survey to see which insurers tend to draw customer ire.

Shopping for insurance isn’t fun, but saving hundreds or even thousands of dollars is. You should make the effort at least every few years.

Q&A: Best way to pay for college

Dear Liz: We have two children in college, both entering their junior years. We have two more in high school. The two currently in college need additional financial assistance, as they’ve tapped out their federal student loans.

We are middle class, grossing about $125,000 a year, so we don’t qualify for much financial aid. We’re considering a cash-out refinancing of our home, but we feel as though we can do it only once, since each time we refinance it will cost us some fees, plus interest rates are likely to start edging up soon.

However, if we take out a big chunk of cash that could last us for the next two years for the first two children, and possibly some for the other two, we’re concerned that having that much cash sitting in the bank will reduce the amount of financial aid we receive, which would be counterproductive.

Is there a way to earmark the extra cash clearly for education expenses so that it doesn’t count negatively on our Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)? Or do we just need to take this year’s cash out now, and refinance again each year (which seems crazy)?

As an aside, now that we have a little experience with this college thing, we will guide the two younger ones to community college or living at home while attending a less expensive public college, or something along those lines.

The first two just sort of went — without a lot of financial forethought.

Answer: The chunk of cash from such a refinance would be counted as a parental asset, provided the savings account is in your names and not those of your child.

So a maximum of 5.64% of the total would be included in any financial aid calculations. That’s not a big bite, but if you’re not getting much financial aid it could offset or erase the small amount you’re getting.

The bigger danger is that you’re taking on debt for something that won’t increase your own wealth or earning power. If you should suffer a severe-enough financial setback, such as a layoff, you could wind up losing your home.

In general, parents shouldn’t borrow more for their children’s college educations than they can afford to pay back before retirement — or within 10 years, whichever is less.

This rule of thumb assumes that you’re already saving adequately for retirement and will continue to do so while paying back the debt. If that’s not the case, you shouldn’t borrow at all.

If you’re going to borrow and can pay the money back quickly, a home equity line of credit may be a better option than a refinance. Interest rates on lines of credit aren’t fixed, but the costs are significantly less and you can withdraw money as needed.

Yet another option: parent PLUS loans, which currently offer a fixed rate of 6.84%. Approach these loans cautiously. It’s easy to borrow too much, since the program doesn’t consider your ability to repay. And like federal student loans, this debt typically can’t be erased in Bankruptcy Court.

Q&A: Understanding Social Security survivor benefits

Dear Liz: I need a clarification because I’m getting conflicting answers from Social Security.

I know if you start Social Security benefits early, you get them at a reduced rate. When your spouse dies, is your survivor benefit reduced as well? My friend’s mother never worked, but started collecting spousal benefits at 62. Does she get reduced or full benefit when her husband dies?

Answer: Her survivor’s benefit is not reduced because she started spousal benefits early. It may be reduced, however, if her husband started retirement benefits early or if she starts survivor’s benefits before her own full retirement age.

Survivor’s checks are based on what the husband either was receiving or had earned. If the husband starts retirement benefits before his own full retirement age (currently 66), his checks are reduced, which also reduces what his widow could receive as a survivor.

If he delays retirement past 66, he earns 8% annual “delayed retirement credits” — an increase both would get.

If he dies before full retirement age without starting benefits, the survivor benefit would be based on what he would have received at full retirement age. If he dies after full retirement age without starting benefits, the survivor check is based on the larger amount he had earned (in other words, his benefit at full retirement age, plus any delayed retirement credits).

How much of the husband’s benefit his widow would get depends on when she starts claiming her survivor’s benefit.

If she starts at the earliest possible age of 60 (or 50 if she’s disabled, or any age if there are children under 16), her survivor’s benefit will be reduced to reflect the early start.

If she waits until her full retirement age, by contrast, the survivor’s benefit would be equal to what her husband was receiving or had earned. Waiting to start survivor benefits until after her full retirement age doesn’t increase her check, however.

Q&A: Tuition gifts and tax breaks

Dear Liz: You recently answered questions about tax breaks for college education expenses. We are contributing $20,000 to our grandson’s college education yearly. He is not our dependent. We are senior citizens with a gross income of about $110,000. Is there any deduction for this expenditure that we might qualify for?

Answer: Your grandson is a lucky young man. Since he’s not your dependent, though, you can’t take any of the available education tax credits or deductions.
The good news is that you don’t have to worry about filing gift tax returns. Each person is allowed to give any other person up to a certain limit each year without triggering the need to file such returns.

This amount, called the annual gift exclusion, is $14,000 this year. Together, you and your spouse could gift up to $30,000 to one person. You wouldn’t actually owe gift taxes until the amounts exceeding this annual exclusion totaled $10.86 million as a couple.

Even if you were giving more than $30,000, there would be a way to avoid filing gift tax returns, and that’s to pay the college directly. Amounts you pay directly to a college or to medical provider are exempt from the limits.

Q&A: Divorce and Social Security spousal benefits

Dear Liz: My ex-wife and I were married for 12 years. She is 55. I am 64 and collecting Social Security. At what age can she apply for spousal benefits?

Answer: If she doesn’t remarry, she can apply for spousal benefits as early as age 62. If she applies early, though, she would lose the option to switch to her own benefit later if it’s larger.

To preserve that option, she would need to wait until her own full retirement age, which is 67 for those born in 1960 and later.

Dear Liz: My husband is 68 and I am 59. My husband is deferring his Social Security to age 70 to get the largest amount. If he predeceases me, at what age would I be eligible for 100% of my husband’s current Social Security benefit? Would I have to wait to age 66 for that benefit?

Answer: If your husband should die, you could apply for survivor’s benefits as early as age 60 (or 50 if you are disabled). Your benefit would be reduced to reflect the early start. To get 100% of your husband’s benefit, you typically would have to wait until your own full retirement age. If you were born in 1956, that would be 66 and four months.

There’s a wrinkle here, though. By waiting to start his benefit, your husband is earning what are known as delayed retirement credits that increase his benefit by 8% annually (or two-thirds of 1% each month). Your survivor’s benefit would be based on the benefit he’s earned, including the delayed retirement credits, even if he should die before age 70. So at least some of the effect of your early start would be offset by the fact that he delayed benefits.

If your husband had started benefits early, by contrast, your survivor’s benefit would have been based on that permanently reduced amount. By waiting, your husband is ensuring that you will get the largest survivor benefit possible while increasing the odds that you as a couple will get the most out of Social Security.

Q&A: The value of associate degrees

Dear Liz: Please continue to encourage people to look into two-year technical degrees. I got my associate’s degree in mechanical engineering and in my first job earned more than my father.

Later I worked for a company that made touch-screen point-of-sale terminals. Time and time again, I trained waiters who had bachelor’s or master’s degrees but couldn’t find better jobs. I now work for a large computer company and have folks sitting around me with those same higher degrees.

Answer: On average, people with two-year degrees are paid less than the average four-year degree holder. One in four people with associate’s degrees, however, earns more, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

These jobs are often in the technical and health fields. Four of the BLS’ 30 fastest-growing job categories require two-year degrees. Those positions include dental hygienist (median annual earnings of $70,210), diagnostic medical sonographers ($65,860), occupational therapy assistants ($53,240) and physical therapist assistant ($52,160).

Other well-paying jobs with good growth prospects requiring two-year degrees include funeral service managers ($66,720), Web developers ($62,500), electrical and electronics drafters ($55,700), nuclear technicians ($69,060), radiation therapists ($77,560), respiratory therapists ($55,870), registered nurses ($65,470), cardiovascular technologists and technicians ($52,070), radiologic technologists ($54,620) and magnetic resonance imaging technologists ($65,360).

Q&A: Co-pays and collections

Dear Liz: My primary care physician referred me to a gynecologist for a medical issue. I called the office three times and asked that the appointment be made as an annual exam.
During the appointment, the doctor was rude and critical of my body and lifestyle. (I am obese.) I left the appointment in tears before it was over.

Five months later, I got a $160 bill for the appointment. My insurance denied the claim twice, saying the doctor was double charging, but the office fought back, saying the charge was for the referral, not the annual exam.

I have tried to work with the doctor’s office and my insurance, but now the bill has gone to collections. It’s knocked my FICO score from 780 to 680 in a matter of months.

Part of me does not want to pay the bill because of the abuse I received from the doctor. However, this is affecting my finances. Would it help my FICO score if I negotiated with the bill collector and then repaid a part of the bill? What are my options?

Answer: Your best option is to ask the doctor’s office, politely, to take back the collection account in exchange for your paying the bill in full.

The doctor should not have been rude to you. But you shouldn’t have tried to get a referral for a medical issue treated as an annual exam. You were probably trying to avoid a co-pay, because health plans typically cover this type of preventive care, but that’s not why you were there.

You could ask whether the bill collector will delete the account from your credit reports. You would almost certainly have to pay the bill in full to win this concession, and even then the odds are against it.

That’s why it’s better to ask the medical provider to take back the account. In many cases, medical providers place accounts with collectors on assignment and have the ability to pull them back if they want.

The latest version of the FICO credit scoring formula ignores paid collections and treats unpaid medical collections less harshly than other collections. But that formula is just starting to be adopted, and the more commonly used previous version, FICO 8, ignores only collections worth less than $100.

As you’ve seen, even one dispute can lead to a big drop in your scores. If you feel an issue is worth pursuing, it often makes sense to pay the disputed bill and then seek justice in Small Claims court.