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Dear Liz: Recently I’ve paid off almost $20,000 in credit card debt and am determined not to go down that path again. Because I haven’t used these cards in a while, though, I’m starting to get notifications from the credit card companies that they’re closing my accounts because of inactivity. I know having long-standing accounts on your credit report is a good thing, but I don’t want to be tempted to use these cards just to keep the account open. Is it a bad thing if almost all of my credit card accounts get closed?

Answer: Your good histories with these cards should remain on your credit reports for years. But if you stop using credit entirely, eventually your credit reports won’t generate credit scores. That could cause you problems if you later want to borrow money (say, to buy a home) and could even affect your insurance premiums, since insurers use credit information as well.

It’s not too hard to keep accounts active without slipping into debt again. Simply set up a bill to be charged automatically to each account, then set up automatic payments with the credit card issuer so the full balance is taken out of your checking account each month.

 

Categories : Credit Cards, Q&A, Retirement
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Dear Liz: My wife of 34 years died five years ago. Her father is 94. He has accumulated a large amount of wealth over the last 40 years. I always made a point of staying out of financial discussions between my father-in-law and his daughters. He told us for years that upon his death all his wealth is to be divided between us (my wife and me) and her sister. Recently, a gold digger reappeared on the scene. My father-in-law and his late wife took her in at a young age when her parents died. I don’t know if she was ever formally adopted or not, or how that affects the situation. My question is, do I have any legal rights, upon my father-in-law’s death, to any distribution of his estate if I am not listed in the actual trust or will?

Answers: Your chances of inheriting from your father-in-law may have died along with your wife.

Sons-in-law don’t really have inheritance rights. If your father-in-law dies without an estate plan, state law would dictate who his heirs would be: typically his surviving spouse (if he has one) and any living children. Even his kids would have no legal right to inherit if he has a will or trust that disinherits them.

Estate plans sometimes make provisions for a child’s spouse, particularly if the money eventually will be inherited by the grandchildren. Such a trust might give you the right to income from assets that on your death would go to your wife’s children, for example. If there aren’t grandchildren, though, the money your wife would have inherited may simply go to her sister (and possibly the “gold digger,” as you describe her, if she’s included in the estate plan).

Of course, if the old man likes you, he could make a bequest to you in his will. But you have no legal right to demand that he do so, and any attempt to pressure him could raise the question of who is the actual gold digger here.

Moving student loan debt

Dear Liz: My daughter has $30,000 in student loans from obtaining her masters degree. The loans have about a 7% interest rate. She will be eligible to have $5,000 forgiven if she works five years in a low-income school. Although she is currently so employed, she does not know whether she will stay there for five years. I have a line of credit available with a 4.8% interest rate. It seems to me that she will pay less overall if she uses my line of credit to pay off her student loans and makes the monthly payment on the line of credit. Does she miss out on developing a good credit score by using my credit? Is it worth paying the higher interest rate to develop that credit history?

Answer: There are several reasons not to use your credit line, and they don’t have to do with her credit scores.

The student loans are helping her scores now and will continue to do so even after they’re paid off, since most lenders continue to report closed accounts for years.

If she uses your line of credit, though, she won’t be able to deduct the interest she pays. Student loans provide a valuable “above the line” income adjustment for most borrowers. They don’t have to itemize to take advantage of this adjustment, which is the smaller of $2,500 or the interest actually paid. The ability to take this tax break is phased out in 2013 when modified adjusted gross income is between $60,000 and $75,000 for singles and $125,000 to $155,000 for married couples filing jointly.

Also, your line of credit carries an adjustable rate that can (and likely will) go higher. The rate would have to rise only two percentage points before it equals the fixed rate on her federal student loans. Federal student loans offer a number of other protections, including income-based repayment options, forgiveness after 10 years in public service jobs (after 25 years otherwise) and forbearance or deferral should she experience an economic setback. She can learn more about these options at studentaid.ed.gov.

Finally, if she failed to make payments on your line of credit, your credit scores would be on the line — as would your home, if the account is secured by your home equity.

It’s commendable that you want to help your daughter, but in this case you both may be better off keeping the debt in her name rather than putting it in yours.

Comments (2)

Dear Liz: I’m confused about paying down credit card debt. Some say to pay the lowest-balance cards first and others say the highest balance or the one with the highest interest. I have almost $16,000 on credit cards ranging from a $4,930 balance on a card with an 8.24% interest rate to $660 on a card with an 18% rate.

Answer: Actually, the first question you should ask is “How much credit card debt do I have compared to my income?” If your balances equal half or more of your annual earnings, you may not be able to pay it all off. You should make appointments with a legitimate credit counselor (such as one affiliated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at http://www.nfcc.org) and a bankruptcy attorney (referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at http://www.nacba.org).

If your situation isn’t that dire, the fastest way out of debt is to pay the minimums on your lower-rate cards and send as much money as possible to your highest-rate card. Once that’s paid off, concentrate on paying off the next-highest-rate card, and so on. Some people instead like to target balances from smallest to largest to get a quicker feeling of victory, but you typically pay more in interest with that approach.

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Credit card fraud alerts: don’t be too impressed

Feb 04, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: My wife and I have had our bank’s airline cards a long time, but we want to change because it’s become almost impossible to cash in the miles. What I don’t see in various card-comparison articles are ratings of the card issuers for customer service and fraud protection. Our bank has been quite good at both, but what about the other issuers?

Answer: People are often unduly impressed when their credit card issuers contact them frequently about possibly fraudulent charges. The issuers are the only ones at risk in these situations, since under “zero liability” policies you can’t be held responsible for bogus charges. Also, if their software were better, they might do a better job of separating legitimate from fraudulent transactions and have to bother you less.

In any case, it’s tough to tell as a customer how good the issuer’s fraud prevention measures are. So perhaps a better metric to use is customer service, and J.D. Power publishes an annual credit card satisfaction study that tries to gauge six factors: interaction; credit card terms; billing and payment; rewards; benefits and services; and problem resolution. American Express has ranked at the top of the survey every year since it started seven years ago. Discover ranked second for 2013 and Chase ranked third.

Categories : Credit Cards, Q&A
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Why company 401(k) matches matter

Feb 04, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: As a CPA financial advisor to individuals and small businesses, I devour your column. It’s almost always spot on. But the first sentence of your advice to the person whose 401(k) doesn’t offer a match — “start looking for a better job” — was not, and you missed an opportunity to educate your readers in how to compare job compensation.

I encourage my small-business and wage-earning clients to adopt a “total compensation” view to evaluate labor costs and to talk wages with their employees or employers. Employer A offering $100,000 might be better, worse or equal to Employer B offering $70,000 plus retirement plan match and, more importantly, employer-subsidized family health insurance. Besides the intangible factor of job satisfaction, one just doesn’t know which employer’s total financial compensation is “better” without crunching the numbers before and after tax. The two companies might be different only in philosophy of how compensation is paid, not better or worse.

Answer: Some jobs come with pensions or pay so good that the lack of a company 401(k) match is all but irrelevant. It’s safe to say those jobs are not in the majority. The median full-time wage at the end of last year was under $44,000, which means half of all workers earned less. Given stagnant incomes and rising costs, many workers have a tough time saving, so the extra help provided by a company match can make a world of difference in their ability to achieve a comfortable retirement.

Nine out of 10 employers that have a 401(k) offer a match, according to PlanSponsor.com, so plans that don’t are definitely outliers. The most common match is now 100%, or one dollar for each dollar contributed, up to 6% of the worker’s salary, according to the most recent Aon Hewitt study. Nineteen percent of the employers surveyed offered this match, up from 10% in 2011. The most common match used to be 50 cents for each dollar contributed up to 6% of salary.

Clearly, more employers are getting the message that good company matches are an excellent way to signal that they care about their employees’ futures.

Categories : Q&A, Retirement
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Dear Liz: My husband and I have decided that next year we want to have a baby. So we have at minimum a year and nine months to make sure we’re financially prepared. I did some cursory Googling and I’m already a bit overwhelmed. I’m not sure where to start.

I know I should figure out how much the medical costs will be, but how do I figure out how much everything else costs? Do you have a checklist of things we should be aware of and consider? One thing I could use some guidance on is whether I should stay home or put our baby in daycare so I don’t miss out on work benefits like healthcare and 401(k) matching. I like my job and bosses, and if I leave I will have to find a new job that may not be as good when I decide to reenter the workforce. But if we decide to have a second child, I’m worried that childcare costs will be too much for two young children. Know of any good books on this subject?

Answer: By leaving work you wouldn’t be missing out only on benefits. Research by economist Stephen J. Rose and Heidi I. Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, found that women’s average annual earnings decline 20% if they stay out of the workforce for one year and 30% if the absence stretches to two or three years. Many find it tough to rejoin the workforce after extended absences.

Quitting work is the right choice for some parents, but you shouldn’t do so simply because you fear childcare costs. For a few years, those costs might eat up most or all of your paycheck, but such expenses decline over time. If you continue to work, your earning power and retirement contributions will continue to grow.

Meanwhile, some parents find they can reduce childcare costs by staggering their work schedules, tapping family members or sharing a nanny. Research the childcare options in your area so you have an idea of what’s available and the costs.

You can continue your research into budgeting for a child with the excellent, constantly updated book “Baby Bargains” by Denise and Alan Fields. This field guide offers product reviews and realistic assessments of what you actually need to buy for your child and what you don’t.

Another good resource is financial writer Kimberly Palmer’s “Baby Planner,” available on Etsy.

With all your planning, keep in mind that parenting always presents surprises. You may decide to stop after one child or keep going until you have a houseful. The important thing is to remain flexible and don’t assume you know how your future self will choose to live.

One of the best pieces of advice in Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s bestselling book, “Lean In,” is that women not cut themselves off from career opportunities because of how hard they think combining work and child-rearing will be. “What I am arguing is that the time to scale back is when a break is needed or when a child arrives — not before, and certainly not years in advance,” she writes.

Comments (7)

Find a better credit card

Jan 27, 2014 | | Comments (1)

Dear Liz: One of my credit cards offers mediocre rewards — mainly an online store where I can use points to buy products I don’t really need. I would like a card from the same company that offers better rewards, but this is my oldest credit card and I don’t want to hurt my credit score by closing it. Should I just open a new card and use this one sparingly? Can I call the company to seek better rewards without closing the account? Thanks for any help you can offer.

Answer: If you have plenty of other open accounts, don’t be afraid of closing one occasionally. Most credit issuers continue to report the details of closed accounts to the credit bureaus for years, so your good history with this card will continue to contribute positively to your scores even if you close the account.

With that in mind, you can call the issuer and ask for a better deal, which will usually mean opening a new card. You also can shop for new cards at one of the many card comparison sites, such as NerdWallet, Cardratings.com or Creditcards.com.

Comments (1)

Who should save 10%

Jan 20, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: I often hear financial planners say you should save 10% of your income, but they don’t go into exactly what that means. Is that 10% separate from retirement or including retirement? Does that include saving for your emergency fund? Is this just archaic advice now? I’m 46 with only $40,000 saved for retirement so I’m in the panic mode that I will never be able to save enough for retirement.

Answer: Saving 10% for retirement is often considered a minimum for those who start saving in their 20s. The older you are when you begin, the more you’d need to save to match the nest egg you would have accumulated with an earlier start. That means saving 15% to 20% if you start in your 30s, 25% to 30% if you start in your 40s, and 40% of your income, or more, if you don’t start until your 50s.

Clearly, the wind is at your back when you start saving young. It starts blowing pretty hard in your face if you wait.

If you can’t carve out a huge chunk of your income for retirement, though, you shouldn’t despair. Save what you can, as anything you put aside will help supplement your Social Security checks. You may find that your expenses drop substantially in retirement, particularly if you have a mortgage paid off by then, so you won’t need to replace as much income as you think.

Another technique for coping with a late start is to work longer. That gives you longer to save, but it also allows your savings — and your Social Security benefits — more time to grow. You will be able to claim early Social Security benefits at 62, but you’ll be locking in a smaller check for life. It’s usually better to wait until your full retirement age, which will be 67, to begin benefits, since each year you wait adds nearly 7% to your check. If you wait three more years, until age 70, your check would grow by 8% each year. That’s a guaranteed return unavailable anywhere else.

Categories : Q&A, Retirement
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Dear Liz: My son is 52 and has been unemployed for three years. He has been forced to withdraw money from his 401(k) and pay early withdrawal penalties on it to pay his mortgage and other bills. Is there such a thing as a hardship exception to avoid this tax bill?

Answer: There’s a way to avoid the 10% federal penalty, but not income tax, on early withdrawals from retirement accounts when someone is under 591/2 (the usual age when penalties end). The distributions must be made as part of a series of “substantially equal periodic payments” made using that person’s life expectancy. When these distributions are taken from a qualified retirement plan, such as a 401(k), the person making them must be “separated from service” — in other words, not employed by the company offering the plan.

Your son wouldn’t be able to withdraw big chunks of his savings, however. Someone his age who has a $100,000 balance in a retirement plan could take out about $3,000 per year without penalty. Revenue Ruling 2002-62, available on the IRS site, lists the methods people can use to determine these periodic payments. If he might benefit from this approach, it would be smart to have a tax pro review his calculations.

Categories : Q&A, Retirement, Taxes
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Why you want an emergency fund

Jan 20, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: I regularly read about people in your column who don’t feel the need for an emergency fund, or think they only need a small one. This is one of the many issues that makes me glad that my husband takes care of the finances. We are both professionals with graduate degrees who, for different reasons, were once unemployed for three months at the same time. Because we had a healthy emergency fund, we kept up with our bills with only minimal belt-tightening. If I had been in charge we would have had to flee the country to escape our creditors! That’s an exaggeration, but you get my point.

Answer: Kudos to your husband for being prudent, and to you for cooperating with him.

For most families, growing a fat emergency fund necessarily must take a back seat to more important priorities, such as saving for retirement and paying off toxic debt, including credit cards. As soon as they’re able to add to their emergency savings, though, they should do so. The average duration of unemployment stretched over five months after the recent recession. Although you may be able to live off credit cards and lines of credit, using cash is obviously better — and having that fat emergency fund can help you sleep better at night.

Categories : Q&A, Saving Money, The Basics
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