Q&A: Cerebral slide can hit your wallet

Dear Liz: As a practicing attorney, age 72, I take exception to your advice to the grandmother who complained about her husband co-signing for his granddaughter’s deadbeat boyfriend’s auto loan. You said, “He is showing signs of cognitive impairment.” She never gave his age. Even if he was past 70, an impairment may or may not be true without knowing more facts. I know people in their 80s and beyond who are careful and manage their money very well. In my 30 years of practice, I have seen many cases where relatives and friends co-sign for a family member or friend, often for an auto loan. This practice crosses all age and demographic lines. Each person has a reason for co-signing (or lending money), but the most common thread in family members is: “It’s really hard to say no to a person I love.”

Answer: You might want to take another look at that column. The grandfather co-signed a loan not for a relative or a friend, but for a young man whose last name he didn’t know — and he did so without consulting his wife.

Not everyone turns into a financial fool in his later years, but our cognitive abilities do decline with age, starting in our 20s. Until our 50s, those losses in cognitive function are offset by increased experience and knowledge. After that, our growing wisdom isn’t enough to offset our cerebral slide.

If you think you’re cognitively as sharp as you were in your youth, then you may be the exception — or you may be deluded.

Researchers who tested people in their 80s found that “large declines in cognition and financial literacy have little effect on an elderly individual’s confidence in their financial knowledge, and essentially no effect on their confidence in managing their finances,” according to a paper for the Center for Retirement Research.

That’s why it’s important to put protections into place to keep yourself from making bad financial choices. You can start by simplifying your finances and consolidating accounts to make them easier to monitor. You may want to develop a relationship with a trusted financial advisor, one with a fiduciary duty to put your interests first, so that you can seek good counsel before making financial moves. Also, many people as they age give a trusted child or friend access to their accounts so they can be watched for suspicious transactions.

Q&A: Do the math on retirement benefits

Dear Liz: My full retirement age for Social Security benefits is 66. To receive that amount, do I have to keep working until I am 66? I was going to retire at 63 and receive a state pension and wait until 66 to apply for Social Security. I wasn’t planning on working full-time from 63 to 66.

Answer: You don’t have to keep working. When to retire can be a separate decision from when to start Social Security benefits.

Before you do either, though, find out how your state pension may affect your Social Security benefits. If you’re receiving a pension from a job that didn’t pay into the Social Security system, your Social Security benefit may be reduced. If that’s the case, it can make sense to delay taking your pension and start taking Social Security earlier. You can use claiming software such as MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com or SocialSecurityChoices.com to see what might be the best approach.

Q&A: How to negotiate the medical bill maze in search of a better deal

Dear Liz: My husband and I have run into some serious medical bills recently. We have insurance, but one provider is out of network with a huge deductible and low payout, while another claim was flat-out denied. We’re looking at around $16,000 in bills, assuming nothing else is denied. What can we do to get these bills lowered?

Answer: Act fast, negotiate hard and don’t pay the “sticker price” for healthcare if you can possibly avoid it.

Start by reviewing your bills for errors such as duplicate charges, fees for services you didn’t receive and charges that seem excessive. A medical billing advocate may spot more subtle overcharges, such as separate, higher fees for procedures that should have been billed together as one bundle. The National Assn. of Healthcare Advocacy Consultants and the Alliance of Claims Assistance Professionals can offer referrals.

You may be able to resolve the errors with a call to your insurer, but you’ll still want to ask how to file a formal appeal so you can challenge the claim denial.

Look for other ways to reduce the bills. Some medical providers have charity programs that may help, and they aren’t just for low-income people: Partial relief may be available for those earning up to 400% of the poverty level for their areas.

Even if you don’t qualify, don’t assume that the numbers on your bills are what you actually have to pay. As you know from previous medical bills, the amounts providers charge bear little resemblance to the amounts they’re willing to accept from insurers. Ask to be charged the same amount that the provider would accept from Medicare, or from the largest insurer in its network.

If you can pay your bill all at once, ask for another discount for paying in cash. If you can’t pay, ask for a no-interest payment plan. Providers may push you to pay the bill with a credit card, but resist doing so unless you get a significant discount and can pay off the bill quickly.

Q&A: Retirement account bears close scrutiny

Dear Liz: About five years ago, I transferred a 401(k) account to an IRA with a financial advisor recommended by a friend. I receive monthly statements, but like most people, I am busy and do not study them, which is my fault. The statements are very confusing, even though I am a college graduate with a business degree. I recently realized that the account has not grown at all, even though it’s invested in stock mutual funds. The Standard & Poor’s 500 has been up about 10% each year on average, so I feel that I should have a much better return. How do I best go about finding out why I am not making any money? Approaching this financial advisor is useless.

Answer: It appears your advisor is worse than useless; he or she is a hazard to your financial health.

A properly diversified retirement portfolio may not grow at exactly the same rate as a stock benchmark such as the S&P 500, but it certainly should have grown significantly in the past five years. It could be that the advisor has been trying to “beat the market” with actively managed funds, which typically fall far short of the mark and do little other than cost investors too much. Or the advisor could be pushing high-cost funds that pay fat commissions and benefit the firm far more than they benefit you.

The Department of Labor recently instituted regulations that should stop many of these shenanigans by requiring advisors giving retirement advice to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own. You shouldn’t wait for those changes to be implemented, though, because you’ve already lost enough ground. Transfer your IRA to a low-cost provider such as Vanguard, Fidelity or T. Rowe Price and consider investing in a target-date retirement fund that will take care of asset allocation and rebalancing for you.

Q&A: Healthcare coverage should be part of retirement planning

Dear Liz: You’ve been writing about how much to save for retirement, including how much of our incomes we should aim to replace with our savings. Two additional reasons to shoot for a higher replacement rate is the possibility that medical needs will be higher the older one becomes (even with Medicare and a supplemental plan) and the possibility that long-term care will take a huge bite out of savings if one self-insures for this. My wife and I took these into account when we saved as much as we could afford during our working years.

Answer: Many people erroneously believe that Medicare will take care of their healthcare costs in retirement. In reality, Medicare generally pays for about 60% of typical healthcare services, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Fidelity Investments estimates the typical couple at age 65 can expect to spend $245,000 on healthcare throughout retirement. That figure doesn’t include the costs of nursing homes or long-term care, which also aren’t typically covered by Medicare. Anticipating and saving for these expenses was a smart move on your part.

Q&A: The ins and outs of credit scores

Dear Liz: I’ve been using a free credit site to learn more about credit reports and credit scores. Recently I looked around and found reviews about how “horribly inaccurate” these free scores are. Where can I go to find my real FICO credit scores? I need the ones that matter, the ones that lenders use.

Answer: Some free scores aren’t used by any lenders. But many sites these days give out VantageScores, a FICO rival that’s being used in a growing number of credit decisions. So VantageScores are “real” scores, just not the most commonly used scores.

Here’s the thing, though: You generally can’t predict which scores a lender will use. Not only are there different name brands, but FICO offers versions customized for certain types of lending. The scores typically used by credit card issuers are different from the ones used by auto lenders, for example. These industry-specific FICO scores are on a 250-to-900 scale, rather than the 300-to-850 scale used by other FICO scores.

There are also different generations of each type of score, much like the different operating systems for your computer. Some lenders quickly upgrade to the latest version, just as some computer users upgraded to Windows 10 when it came out. Others use older versions of the scores, just as users may cling to Vista or XP. (For you Mac users, that would be something like hanging on to Mountain Lion or Snow Leopard instead of updating to El Capitan.)

Mortgage lenders, in particular, use relatively old versions of FICO. That’s because the agencies that buy most home loans, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, haven’t updated their requirements so that lenders can use newer versions.

Some credit card companies offer their customers free FICO scores, typically from one bureau. You can get a glimpse of the array of scores lenders might use by buying the most commonly used FICO, the FICO 8, for about $20 each from MyFico.com. Along with each FICO 8 you buy (you can buy three, one from each of the three major credit bureaus), you’ll get additional versions used for auto, credit card and mortgage lending.

If you’re going to be in the market for a major loan, such as a car loan or a mortgage, it makes sense to buy your FICOs so you can get a better idea of how lenders might view you. If you’re just interested in tracking your scores generally, though, the free versions can be perfectly adequate.

Q&A: More on Saving for Retirement

Dear Liz: Here is another take on your response to the reader who questioned whether retirement calculators were a hoax that promoted excessive savings rates. You mentioned that current retirees had enough pensions, Social Security and savings to replace nearly 100% of their working income, while younger people likely would have only enough to replace 50%. You closed your advice by asking if the letter writer would be comfortable living on 50% of that person’s income. For a non-saver, that is a fair question. But for a saver, it isn’t an accurate comparison.

If one is presently saving, say, 10%, then that person is already living on 90% of current income. If saving 15%, then that person is already living on 85%. When you analyze the expected impact of having the compounded savings at retirement, the true “step down” in income is really the difference between the current 90% or 85% figure and what you will have with Social Security, part-time job income, pension (if you work for the government) and savings. The gap becomes much more manageable, because you already are used to living on 10% to 15% less than your current income.

The point? Savers are already accustomed to living on less — in some cases, significantly less — than current income. Between the already lowered current disposable income and the benefit from the accumulated savings and investments, the “step down” gap is made manageable. Saving helps on both ends.

Answer: That’s an excellent point. Taxes are another factor to consider. Working people pay nearly 8% of their wages in Social Security and Medicare taxes, an expense that disappears when work ends. Income tax brackets often drop in retirement as well.

Still, there are good reasons to shoot for a higher replacement rate than you think you may need. Investment markets don’t always cooperate and give you the returns you expect. Inflation can kick up and erode the value of what you’ve saved. Careers can be disrupted, leading to lower wages or an earlier retirement than you planned. People who have “oversaved” will be in a better position to deal with these setbacks than those who save only enough to scrape by.

Q&A: Defaults on a co-signed student loan

Dear readers: A recent column about private student loans prompted financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz to reach out with some additional advice for people who co-signed student loans for someone who has stopped paying. Although private student loans don’t have the same rehabilitation options as federal student loans, Kantrowitz encourages anyone in this situation to ask the lender, “What are my options?” and “Can you remove the default?”

“I’ve seen lenders not only remove the default from the co-signer’s credit history, but even reduce the interest rate if the co-signer agrees to make the payments by auto-debit,” said Kantrowitz, coauthor of the book “File the FAFSA.”

Someone who agrees to make payments may get a better deal than someone who pays off the loan in a lump sum, Kantrowitz said, because lenders want to be paid interest. But there would be nothing to stop a co-signer who makes payment arrangements to pay off the debt in full after a few months.

“This way he potentially can have the default entirely removed from his credit history, restoring him to his previous credit score,” Kantrowitz said. “It also leaves the account open, so that he can pressure the [borrower] into making payments.”

Q&A: Divorced survivor benefits

Dear Liz: After death, do ex-spousal Social Security benefits continue?

Answer: Any checks you’re getting from Social Security are supposed to stop when you die. But you’re probably asking what happens after the death of your ex-spouse.

The good news is that you would be eligible for divorced survivor benefits. Instead of receiving a check based on half of what your ex was getting, your payment will be based on the entire check your ex was getting. (With either benefit, the check would be reduced if you started benefits before your own full retirement age.)

Benefits for divorced spouses are available if the marriage lasted at least 10 years. Divorced spousal benefits end if the person remarries, but divorced survivor benefits can continue if the survivor remarries after reaching age 60.

Q&A: Retirement calculators are a wake-up call for undersavers

Dear Liz: Are retirement calculators a hoax? It seems that the published estimates for the amount of savings required are insanely high. If most U.S. citizens haven’t saved much and have a decent standard of living in retirement, where is the misperception? Let’s say an individual is resolved to choose hospice over intensive care — so we can reduce healthcare from the equation — and is no longer paying for a mortgage or college. How could someone really need to replace a high percentage of salary? Do we really need to save millions to retire? Even if we just spend the principal in the calculated estimates, we are truly old before we run out. I have got to be missing something.

Answer: You’re missing quite a few things.

People born between 1936 and 1945 — those aged 71 to 80 now — typically had enough savings, home equity, pension income and Social Security benefits to replace 99% of their annual incomes in retirement, according to a Pew Charitable Trust study. This generation benefited from steadily rising incomes and wealth levels through most of their working lives.

Early boomers, born between 1946 and 1955, aren’t quite as well off but typically can replace a comfortable 82% of their incomes.

They’re the last generation, though, that’s expected to be truly secure on average in retirement. Younger people are much less likely to have pensions. Stagnant incomes, rising costs and falling wealth levels further undermine their financial security.

Late boomers, born between 1956 and 1965, are on track to replace 59% of their incomes. GenX, born between 1966 and 1975, could see their incomes cut in half in retirement.

Imagine living on 50% of what you make now. If that would be easy — and if you’re really resolved to choose death over medical treatment — maybe you don’t have to worry about retirement calculations.

If the thought of eking by on half your current income makes you break out in a cold sweat, though, then you better start saving.