Dear Liz: A few years ago I finished paying off my debt and now am in the very low-risk credit category. I have savings equal to about three months’ worth of bills and am working to get that to six months’ worth. I’m wondering, though, about an emergency that may require me to pay in cash (such as a major power outage that disables debit or credit card systems, or the more likely event that I forget the ATM or credit card at home). How much cash should a person have on hand? Is there a magic number?
Answer: There’s no magic number. You’ll have to weigh the likelihood you’ll need the green, and the consequences of not having it when you need it, against the risk of loss or theft.
Many people find it’s a good idea to tuck a spare $20 into their wallet for emergencies, and perhaps another $20 in their cars if they’re in the habit of forgetting their wallets or their plastic.
Cash for a disaster is another matter. Power could go out for a week or more, or you may need to evacuate and pay for transportation and shelter at a time when card processing systems are disabled. A few hundred bucks in cash probably would be the minimum prudent reserve you’d want to keep in a secure place in your home. You may decide that you need more.
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Dear Liz: I’m getting about $500,000 from the sale of my business this year and next year will be getting an additional $1 million. What’s the best way to invest the money so I can make $150,000 to $200,000 a year? I am 55 years old and will have no other income than what I can earn with this money.
Answer: You probably know that “guaranteed” or “safe” returns are very low right now. If you’re getting much more than 1% annually, you’re having to take some risk of loss. The higher the potential returns, the greater the risk.
So even if you could find an investment that promised to return 10% to 13% a year, there are no guarantees such returns would last, plus you would be at risk of losing some or all of your investment. A down draft in the market or an extended vacancy in your real estate holdings could cause you to dig into your principal.
That’s why financial planners typically advise their clients not to expect to take more than 4% a year or so out of their portfolios if they expect those portfolios to last. If you try to take much more out or invest aggressively to earn more, you run a substantial risk of running out of money before you run out of breath.
Dear Liz: I’m wondering how long we really need to keep bank statements, since banks now offer paperless options. My son doesn’t even open the statements anymore; he just views his account information online.
Answer: There’s nothing magical about paper bank statements. If your son doesn’t open them, he probably shouldn’t even get them. He can ask his bank to switch him to its paperless option and save some trees.
The IRS accepts electronic documents, and banks keep account records at least six years. Your highest risk for an audit is the three years after a tax return is filed, so you should be able to download statements if you need them in an audit. There might be fees involved to get these statements, however, so you’ll have to weigh the potential cost against the hassle of storing all that paper. Some people get the paper statements, scan them and shred the originals; others download the statements as they go and store them electronically.
If you don’t need bank records for tax purposes, there’s even less reason for getting paper statements. Eschewing them can reduce bank fees and will certainly save a few trees.
Experian stopped offering FICO scores to consumers a few years ago, even though it continued to sell the scores to lenders. This refusal made it tough for consumers to know what rates they should expect from mortgage lenders, which typically take the middle of your three FICO scores (one from each bureau). You could still get your TransUnion and Equifax FICOs from MyFico.com, but not your Experian FICO.
That’s apparently about to change. Buried in a press release today was an announcement that Experian will once again “make FICO Scores available to consumers through myFICO.com and through third parties.”
Dear Liz: My husband and I are in the process of refinancing our mortgage. I just received my credit report in the mail, and my score was 724. The report indicated that a delinquency resulted in my less-than-stellar score. When I went to the credit bureau site to see where the problem was, I saw that I had a $34 charge on a Visa last year. I rarely use that card, so I did not realize that I had a balance. As a result, I had a delinquent balance for five months last year. I am sick about this, as I always pay my bills on time. To think that my credit score was affected by something so insignificant is really bumming me out. Is there anything I can do to fix this?
Answer: You can try, but creditors are often reluctant to delete true negative information from your credit files. That’s why it’s so important to monitor all of your credit accounts, and to consider signing up for automatic payments so that this doesn’t happen again.
You should know that your mortgage lender won’t look at just one credit score when evaluating your application. Typically, mortgage lenders would request FICO credit scores from each of the three bureaus for both you and your husband, then use the lower of the two middle scores to determine your rate. Even if 724 did turn out to be the lowest of the six scores, you should still get a decent rate, since that’s considered a good score.
Dear Liz: I read your response with interest regarding the two sons in their 60s who were pressuring their parents into taking a reverse mortgage, according to a neighbor who wrote to you about the situation. You may be correct that the sons are trying to get an early inheritance, but you may also be very wrong. The sons may feel well off enough that they don’t need an inheritance and that the money would be better spent by the parents to enjoy their remaining years.
As a reverse mortgage loan officer, I’ve had seniors who are not cash-poor and house-rich go on extended vacations, purchase income properties, buy long-term healthcare policies and fund a research and development project for an invention, to name a few uses. I even know someone who bought a Ferrari, which had been a lifelong desire.
Reverse mortgages are no longer considered to be a loan of last resort. They are, in fact, a source of tax-free cash used in a variety of ways such as preserving and prolonging taxable cash assets, and for seniors who don’t need cash to live on, they may be used by their financial planners for arbitrage purposes.
By the way, I did like your reference to elder care attorneys. Many seniors think it’s a waste of time or way too expensive, but I frequently refer my clients to them as well. They are almost always able to justify the expense in the savings they produce for their clients.
Answer: While there can be many reasonable uses of reverse mortgages, remember that the parents in this case are in their 90s. This may not be a time in their lives when they’re longing for adventure travel, hot cars and investment real estate. It’s certainly not a time in life when they could buy affordable long-term care policies.
There could, however, be another explanation, as the following reader outlines:
Dear Liz: I just read your column about the neighbor’s concern that an elderly couple was being pressured by their sons to get a reverse mortgage. I am glad you mentioned the possibility of fraud by the sons. The elderly are vulnerable and need advocates.
The concerned writer needs to consider another option. Maybe the elderly couple is not doing as well financially as they portray. I was once a concerned neighbor to an elderly widow. As a ploy to remain independent, she was not always upfront about how well (or not well) she was doing. In her case it was health issues that she would hide or downplay (money was not an issue). Though all the neighbors cared and looked out for her, we did not have all the facts that the family had and the family was not aware of all we knew. The concerned neighbor should reach out to the sons. Hopefully the sons are looking out for their parents’ best interests and the neighbor can assist the sons in that common goal.
Answer: Your neighborhood is to be commended for trying to help an elderly person in poor health. Intervening in a financial matter, however, could be fraught with peril and lead to an ugly confrontation with the sons. That’s why directing the parents to an elder law attorney — one affiliated with the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys at http://www.naela.org — probably would be a better course. The attorney could better protect the parents against potential financial abuse while assessing whether they might need more help than they’re letting on.
Dear Liz: My husband and I are recovering from a job loss four years ago. We used up all our savings and home equity. My husband is now employed, but we are struggling to keep ahead even with a salary of about $100,000. I was a stay-at-home mom for the first 10 years of our kids’ lives and now I work two part-time jobs to help with our expenses. We are trying to follow the 50/30/20 budget plan you recommend, but can’t seem to get our “must haves” — which are supposed to be no more than 50% of our after-tax income — down from 80% to 90%. Most of the rest goes for “wants,” such as the kids’ dance classes and soccer teams and for cellphones. We’re not saving anything although we’re trying to whittle down our credit card debt. I have tried several times to refinance our first and second mortgages and home equity line of credit but have found we don’t qualify because too much is owed on our modest three-bedroom, one-bath house, which has gone down significantly in value. We also have two car loans that are worth more than the cars, and the insurance is killing us. Amazingly enough, we have never been late on a payment. We just can’t get ahead. Did I mention that both kids need braces?
Answer: You clearly can’t afford your life, and things will only get worse if you don’t get your spending in line with your income.
Your first step should be to consult with a HUD-approved housing counselor, who can advise you of your mortgage options. You can get referrals from http://www.hud.gov. If your first mortgage is held by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, you may be able to refinance it through the federal government’s Home Affordable Refinance Program. Recent changes in the program have helped more underwater homeowners refinance. Even if you’ve been turned down by one lender, you can try with another. One way to search for HARP quotes is through Zillow’s online mortgage quote service at http://www.zillow.com/mortgage-rates/.
The Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration also have streamlined refinancing programs for their underwater loans.
Government programs usually define an “affordable” payment as one that’s 31% or less of your gross income, but that may be too high for many families to comfortably handle. Ideally, your housing costs — including mortgage, property taxes and insurance — would consume no more than about 25% of your gross (pre-tax) income.
If you exhaust your options and can’t get your mortgage payments down to an affordable level, you should consider a short sale of your home. Moving is terribly disruptive and expensive but it’s better than letting a house sink your finances.
Then take a look at your cars. The average annual cost of owning a car is $8,946, according to AAA. You can make the argument that one car is a necessity, but having two is typically more of a convenience than a “must have.” Getting rid of one could dramatically lower your insurance and transportation costs.
Since you’re underwater on both, you’ll need to look at which is cheapest to operate and which is closest to being paid off. If they’re the same, then your choice is easier — you can work toward paying that car off faster so you can sell it. Otherwise, you’ll have to weigh which loan to target first.
Another way to get your budget balanced is to make more money. That may mean asking for more hours at your jobs or looking for opportunities that pay better.