Dear Liz: Lately I have been reading a lot about how people aren’t saving enough for retirement. Every article I read talks about the need to put enough into employers’ 401(k) programs to get the maximum possible company match. What do you do when your employer doesn’t match your contribution?
Answer: You contribute anyway, and start looking for a better job.
The advice that people should contribute at least enough to get the maximum match is designed to ensure that workers don’t leave free money on the table. That’s essentially what a match is — a free, instant return on your contributions.
Maximizing the match doesn’t mean you’re contributing enough for a comfortable retirement, however. The match may be 50 cents for every dollar you contribute, but most companies won’t match more than 6% of your salary. Most people need to save more than that — sometimes much more, especially if they got a late start.
If your company’s 401(k) doesn’t offer a match, then you will need to save more to make up for the free money you aren’t getting. Because most plans offer a match, though, it may be worthwhile to look for an employer that offers this benefit as it can make retirement saving easier.
To figure out how much you need to save, use a retirement calculator such as the one at the AARP.org website.
Dear Liz: I currently owe $27,000 in student loans at an 11.5% interest rate. I have excellent credit and about $8,000 in savings and contribute 17% of my income to a workplace retirement plan. Should I invest less in my 401(k) and pay off debt instead? I just got a balance transfer offer for 0% for 15 months with a 3% transaction fee. I’m considering taking $3,000 and putting it toward my high-interest student loan.
Answer: If you had federal student loans, transferring any part of your debt to a credit card would be a bad idea. That’s because federal student loans come with consumer protections that allow you to reduce or even eliminate your payments if you fall on hard economic times. You certainly wouldn’t want to reduce your retirement savings to pay off these flexible, fixed-rate loans.
The higher rate you are paying indicates that you have private student loans, which typically don’t have the same protections and which usually have variable rates that will climb higher when inflation returns.
Credit card debt has similar flaws — plus you would lose the interest rate deduction on any student loans you paid off this way. Instead, you may want to investigate the option of refinancing and consolidating your private student loans with a credit union. Credit unions are member-owned financial institutions that often offer better rates than traditional lenders. One site representing credit unions, CUStudentLoans.org, currently advertises variable rates on consolidation loans that range from just under 5% to just over 7%.
If you continued to make your current payments on a consolidated loan with a lower interest rate, you would be able to pay off your loans years faster — saving on interest without jeopardizing your future retirement.
Dear Liz: My debit card was part of the recent Target data breach (my credit union called me). I’ve read articles telling me to pull my credit reports. Here’s the thing: I already requested two of my three free credit reports in early December. When I read about the Target incident, I requested the third one. So now, if I pull a credit report, I’d have to pay for it. I’m very concerned about this, as my finances are tight.
Answer: The information that was stolen in the Target breach — and immediately put up for sale on black-market sites — is not the kind of personal information that’s typically needed to open new accounts, said John Ulzheimer, credit expert for CreditSesame.com. So buying your credit reports or investing in credit monitoring, which is how you would spot new account fraud, isn’t strictly necessary, he said.
The information that was stolen can be used in what’s known as “account takeover,” which means the bad guys can take over existing accounts and make fraudulent charges. In the case of a debit card, that means they can drain your bank account. With a credit card, you wouldn’t have to pay the fraudulent transactions, but dealing with them could still be a hassle.
Either way, you would be smart to close any debit or credit card used at Target between Nov. 27 and Dec. 15, the time of the breach, and ask for a replacement, Ulzheimer said.
Dear Liz: My husband and I are 56. We need to plan for retirement, but whenever the topic comes up, I find that either we have no idea or we disagree on what we will do during our retirement. Naturally, our activities during retirement will affect the funds we will need. We need help to figure out the things we agree on and where we might want to plan for different individual options. Do you have some resources to suggest?
Answer: You can start with a visualization exercise that some financial planners use to clarify their clients’ values.
Imagine your ideal day in retirement. Start with when you’ll wake up and where — what type of dwelling and in what area. In your mind, walk through your day hour by hour — where you’ll be, what you’ll be doing and with whom. Write it all down, even if you don’t think what you’re visualizing is realistic or even possible. The point is to identify, for yourself and your partner, what’s most important to you: what you want your life to be like and whom you want in it. If you visualize waking up in Paris, for example, it doesn’t mean you need to move there. You may be just as content with a trip to the City of Light or travel to less-expensive destinations.
You each should do the exercise separately and then compare what you’ve written. Don’t despair if you visualize yourself on the Champs-Elysees and he’s fishing off his back porch. As you correctly note, you can have different goals and desires for retirement. Complete harmony has never been a requirement of staying married, and that won’t change when you quit your jobs.
Let’s say you want to get deeply immersed as a volunteer for a local, at-risk school, and your husband wants to spend a year roaming the country in an RV. He could opt to pursue other interests during the school year, and you could take extended trips together during the breaks.
Once you’re clearer about what you want for your retirements, you can start working the numbers and figuring out compromises that work for both of you. Start with your expenses — what you’re spending annually now — and subtract any costs that will disappear or substantially diminish when you retire (such as commuting expenses and work clothes). Add in the amounts you’ll need to pursue your passions. (Will you buy the RV used or new? In retirement or before? Tip: Buying a lightly used vehicle before retirement will give you both a chance to get the hang of RVing and its costs so you can decide whether it’s really for you.)
Compare your expected expenses with your expected income, including Social Security, any pensions and withdrawals from your retirement accounts (which initially should be just 3% to 4% of the total balance, planners say). If there’s a gap, that’s what you’ll need to fill in the coming years with increased savings.
Still at an impasse? Hire a fee-only planner who has experience in “life planning,” or helping clients figure out their life goals. You can get a referral from the Kinder Institute of Life Planning at http://www.kinderinstitute.com/dir/.
Dear Liz: Two years ago we moved to another state. Our old house hasn’t sold in that time, as the housing market there is terrible. We have it listed for $255,000 and owe $242,000. A recent appraisal came back at $190,000 to $205,000 despite the fact that it’s in good condition and only 11 years old. We were thinking we should do a mortgage release on the property to get rid of it as we just can’t keep up the mortgage payments any longer. We didn’t think a short sale would work because there’s been no interest yet on the property. Any suggestions?
Answer: What you’re calling a “mortgage release” is actually a foreclosure, and it would devastate your credit for years to come. That may turn out to be the best of bad options, but explore others first.
Perhaps there’s been no interest in your property because the asking price is too high. Talk to a real estate agent with experience in short sales about what listing price is likely to generate offers. A short sale would hurt your credit scores, although perhaps less severely than a foreclosure if you can persuade the lender not to report the deficiency balance (the difference between what you owe on the mortgage and the sale price). The advantage of a short sale is that you’d spend less time in mortgage lenders’ “penalty box” and may qualify for another loan within two years.
Dear Liz: I have about $16,000 in student loans at 6.8% interest. At the current monthly payment it would take me about 7.5 years to pay them off. I contribute 10% of my income to my company’s Roth 401(k) plan (my employer matches the first 6% contributed). I also contribute 3% to the stock purchasing plan. I am thinking of cutting back my 401(k) contribution to 6% and not contributing to the stock purchasing plan. Applying the extra money to my loans would reduce the payback period to about 2.5 years. After that, I would increase the contribution amount and diversify with a Roth IRA as well and maybe even begin the stock purchase program again. What do you think?
Answer: Not contributing to retirement accounts is usually an expensive mistake. The younger you are, the more expensive it can be.
Every $1,000 not contributed to a retirement plan in your 30s means about $10,000 less in retirement income. That assumes an average annual growth rate of 8%, which is the historical average for a stock-heavy portfolio.
In your 20s, the cost of not contributing that $1,000 is $20,000 of lost future retirement income. The extra decade of not getting those compounded returns makes a big difference.
People have the erroneous idea that they can put off retirement savings and somehow catch up later. Catching up, though, becomes increasingly difficult the longer you wait. A better approach is to save as much as possible starting in your 20s when the money has the longest time to grow. Then you’ll be in a better position to withstand job losses or other interruptions of your ability to save. If those setbacks don’t happen, you’d have the option of retiring early.
Granted, your plan would require reducing retirement contributions for just a few years. But the federal student loans you have are fixed-rate, tax-deductible debt that you don’t need to be in a hurry to pay off. In the long run, you’d be much better off boosting your retirement contributions.
If you’re determined to pay down your loans, however, use the money you’ve been contributing to the stock purchase plan. Continue making at least a 10% contribution to your retirement plan and increase that as soon as you can.
Dear Liz: I have rental property, own my home outright, am contributing to a 401(k) and have a pension, so finances are not a big issue. I do have an adult son in law school and would like to know the most fiscally prudent way to pay for it. Are there limits on gifts, and can the money be tax deductible since it is an investment to increase his future earnings?
Answer: Interest on student loans is generally tax deductible for the person who takes out the loan if his or her income is below certain limits (the deduction begins to phase out at $50,000 adjusted gross income for single filers and $100,000 for joint filers), said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for CCH Tax & Accounting North America.
Education tax credits also can help offset college costs. The American Opportunity Credit is limited to the first four years of college, but law school expenses could qualify for the Lifetime Learning Credit, Luscombe said. The credit starts to phase out at $53,000 of adjusted gross income for single filers and $107,000 for joint filers, he said.
If you don’t qualify for other credits and your son is under age 24, you may be able to deduct up to $4,000 in qualified education expenses if your income is below certain limits (modified adjusted gross income of $160,000 if married filing jointly or $80,000 if single), Luscombe said. You can find out the details in IRS Publication 970, Tax Benefits for Education.
Another potential tax benefit has to do with the gift tax. You can avoid the hassle of filing a gift tax return, or using up any portion of your gift tax exclusion, if you pay tuition or medical bills for someone else. You have to pay the provider directly — you can’t cut a check to the person receiving the services.
Normally, you’d have to file a gift tax return if you gave any recipient more than the gift tax exclusion limit, which is $14,000 in 2013. You wouldn’t be subject to an actual gift tax, however, until the sum of the contributions over that $14,000 limit exceeded your lifetime gift exemption. The gift exemption is currently $5.25 million, so the gift tax is an issue that few people face.
If you are that rich and generous, then you’ll probably want to discuss your situation with a qualified estate planning attorney to find the best ways to give.
Dear Liz: I think I have a phobia about spending money. I’m a young professional who has devoted a lot of time to building up my savings account. I also contribute sizable amounts to my 401(k) and IRA each month. I pay off my credit cards each month, and I am making larger-than-necessary payments on my small student loans. Still, I feel as if every time I spend money on something — clothing, travel, furniture, etc. — I am undoing my hard work. It makes me scrutinize every decision until I either give up or make an impulse purchase. Is this normal? How do I know when it is OK to actually spend the money I have worked to save?
Answer: Being cautious about spending money is fine. If making purchases causes you great anxiety, though, or you’re unnecessarily compromising your quality of life, then you may want to seek help.
People with irrational fears of spending money may put off necessary doctor visits, buy unhealthy food because it’s cheap (at least in the short run), refuse to make charitable contributions or forgo pleasurable experiences. Instead of using money as a tool to live a good life, they make saving an end in itself.
Since you’re by nature a saver and a planner, you should use those strengths to free yourself from unnecessary concerns about spending money. If you enjoy travel, for example, plan a few trips and set aside money in advance to pay for them. Do the same thing with clothing or furniture upgrades. Planning and knowing how much you have to spend can help you dispel some of your anxiety and minimize the chances of regret.
Talking to a therapist or a financial planner could give you some additional strategies for dealing with your worries.
Dear Liz: I always hear you talking about having an emergency savings fund. Most people that I’ve heard talk about this recommend keeping it in cash. I just couldn’t stand watching that money languish in a low-interest savings account, so I recently moved it over to my brokerage account and purchased a few exchange-traded funds. My wife and I are under 30 and we both have very stable jobs. We have adequate insurance (including a home warranty). We also have a $20,000 signature line of credit through our credit union in case of an emergency, in addition to multiple credit cards with high limits and no revolving balances. I feel that we are covered in case of an emergency with the credit line alone. Does all of this sound reasonable to you or should I go back to keeping my emergency fund in cash?
Answer: Lines of credit can be a reasonable substitute for an emergency fund for people who have more pressing financial goals, such as saving for retirement and paying off debt.
But there’s really nothing like cash in the bank for meeting life’s inevitable financial setbacks. Even seemingly stable jobs can be lost, and lines of credit can get used up fairly quickly. If these personal setbacks happen at the same time as a stock market downturn, your emergency fund could dwindle dramatically.
That’s why it’s best to keep emergency cash safe and accessible in an FDIC-insured bank account. You can squeeze a little extra return from the money by opting for one of the online banks that’s paying close to 1%. Trying to squeeze much more, though, increases the odds that it won’t be there when you need it the most.
Dear Liz: Here’s a suggestion for the reader who prefers a debit card to a credit card so she will not get in debt: Use your credit card as a debit card. Every month I pay any credit card balance plus an additional amount equal to a month’s average purchases. Then I keep track of what I spend so I don’t go over that amount during the billing period. This is the same as paying the bill one month ahead. I don’t go into debt at all and still get my reward points.
Answer: Another way to accomplish the same end is to check your credit card balance every week and move that amount to a savings account. When the bill is due, you can move the money back to checking from savings and pay in full. It’s important in any case to stay on top of your balances and make sure you’re not spending more than you can pay off each month.