Dear Liz: I’m a 33-year-old mother who lost my full-time job during the recession in 2009. I may have my “stuff” together again, but am considering filing bankruptcy. Each month I’m spending almost half (yes half!) of my income on debt payments to credit cards, loans and medical bills. Each month after all my bills are paid and groceries are bought, I have zero dollars left over to save. Even after losing my job, I made sure to always make those payments, so my credit is decent. Last I checked my credit score was hovering right around 700. I really have no reason to have good credit at this time, as I don’t have any need for a large purchase. Should I file or pay back my debts? Is filing for bankruptcy a good idea if it allows me to build a savings account and start putting money back into a 401(k)?
Answer: A bankruptcy filing would devastate your credit scores, and that may create more problems than you think. Credit information is used by insurers to determine premiums, by landlords to evaluate applicants and by wireless carriers and utilities to set deposit requirements.
At the same time, it makes little sense to continue to struggle against a mound of debt if you’re not making a dent in the pile. If it would take you five years or more to repay what you owe, you should at least consider filing for bankruptcy. Why five years? Because that’s how long you’d be required to make payments under a Chapter 13 repayment plan.
Most people, however, qualify for Chapter 7 liquidation bankruptcy, which is typically preferable since it’s faster (three to four months, versus five years) and erases credit card and medical bills. An experienced bankruptcy attorney can advise you and help you understand the ramifications of filing.
If lower interest rates might help you pay off your debt within five years, you also should consider an appointment with a credit counselor associated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (www.nfcc.org). These nonprofits can set you up with debt management plans that may offer lower rates on your credit card debt.
Most people feel an obligation to pay what they owe, but that often leads to fruitless struggles against impossible debts. Bankruptcy laws allow individuals a fresh start so that they can take care of themselves and their families. Among your many financial obligations is the one to support yourself in retirement, and every year you delay saving will make it that much harder to accumulate a reasonable nest egg.
Dear Liz: I got my credit reports from http://www.annualcreditreport.com as you recommended in a recent column, but had to go through some hoops to get my actual credit score, which is the main thing I wanted. One of the bureaus required me to subscribe to its newsletter, which cost $29.95 a month after a seven-day free trial. I guess they hope people won’t cancel within seven days, but I did, without any trouble.
Answer: Confusion about the difference between credit reports and credit scores often leads people to sign up for unnecessary, costly products. (You were signing up for credit monitoring, by the way, not a newsletter.) You can get free credit scores from a variety of sites, including Credit.com, Credit Karma and Quizzle, without having to buy a product. The scores you get from these sites aren’t the scores that lenders typically use, but neither is the score the credit bureau provided you. If you want to see scores lenders usually use, you’ll need to buy those for $20 apiece from MyFico.com.
Dear Liz: In February 2015, it will be seven years since my bankruptcy. I have worked hard to rebuild my credit, and my credit score is 735. What do I need to do to make sure my bankruptcy drops off at the seven-year mark?
Answer: By federal law, most negative marks must be removed from credit reports after seven years — but bankruptcy is one of the exceptions. A Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which is the most common, can stay on your reports for up to 10 years from the date you filed. Chapter 13 bankruptcies are typically dropped after seven years. In either case, you shouldn’t need to do anything. Credit bureaus should delete the information automatically. If they don’t, contact the bureaus and request the deletion, but that usually isn’t necessary.
If you have to live with bankruptcy on your reports for a few more years, you shouldn’t be discouraged. It seems you’ve done a good job rebuilding your credit, and your scores should continue to rise as long as you handle credit responsibly.
Dear Liz: I am 48 and planning on a career change. I was looking at a culinary school website and it looks pretty exciting. It is a two-year, full-time program and the cost is about $65,000, which doesn’t cover the dorm or apartment expenses for living nearby. Of course, the institute’s counselor told me they have financial aid and asked, “How can you put a price on your future?” Right.
What would be the payback on something like that compared with an average salary of a chef? I will be 50 or so when I complete the program, and I’m not sure I want the big payment plan on my back. Can you help?
Answer: The counselor’s question is ridiculous. How can you not put a price on your future, particularly when it involves such a huge expense? Smart students consider the price not only of their educations but the incomes that education will bring them.
Many students sign up for these for-profit schools with visions of being the next Gordon Ramsay dancing in their heads. A little research would show them that this field is not exactly lucrative or booming.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for a chef or head cook was $42,480 in 2012. Employment is expected to grow 5% in the next decade, which is “slower than average for all occupations.”
So the payback isn’t great, especially if you have to borrow money to foot the bill — and most of the financial aid you get at these schools is loans rather than grants or scholarships. Even for someone with a 40-year working career ahead, taking on that level of debt isn’t smart.
You would have much less time to make an investment in a second career pay off — 15 years or so, and that’s if you can tough it out in a hot, hectic environment into your 60s.
If you really want to take this chance, at least minimize your investment by getting trained at a community college. Even better, get a part-time job in a restaurant and see how you like the work first before you commit to the field.
A more thoughtful approach to a career change would involve meeting with a career counselor to consider your strengths and experience, then looking into jobs in which those are an asset. Any training you would need should be reasonably priced and preferably something you could do while hanging on to your day job. Just think about that culinary expression “Out of the frying pan and into the fire,” and try to avoid getting burned.
Dear Liz: I’m having trouble finding information about how to structure my finances to get the maximum financial aid for my kids when they enter college. For example, will contributing to an IRA instead of a taxable investment account matter? Should I focus on paying off my mortgage or should I buy a bigger house and acquire debt in the process if I want my kids to qualify for more aid? There’s plenty of advice out there about how to minimize taxes — for example, by contributing to 401(k)s or selling losing stocks at year-end. But I’m interested in legally and ethically shielding my assets from the family contribution calculations used by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Any idea how I can learn more about the inner workings of the FASFA formula?
Answer: Before you rearrange your finances, you need to understand that most financial aid these days consists of loans, which have to be repaid, rather than scholarships and grants that don’t. Wanting your kids to qualify for more aid could just lead them to qualify for more debt.
Also, the FAFSA formula weighs income more heavily than assets. If you have a six-figure income and only one child in college at a time, you shouldn’t expect much need-based financial aid, regardless of what you do with your assets.
That said, there are some sensible ways to shield assets from the formula, and often they’re things you should be doing anyway: maxing out your retirement contributions, for example, and using any non-retirement savings to pay down credit cards, car loans and other consumer debt.
Using non-retirement savings to pay down mortgage debt helps with the federal formula, but may not help much with private schools that include home equity in their calculations. Either way, taking on a bigger mortgage with college looming is rarely a good idea.
You can get some idea of how much the federal formula expects you to pay for your children’s educations by using the “estimated family contribution” calculator at FinAid.org. Another great source of information is the book “Filing the FAFSA: The Edvisors Guide to Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid” by Mark Kantrowitz and David Levy.
Dear Liz: When I opened my airline-branded credit card almost 10 years ago, it was well worth the $50 annual fee. I was able to book many flights for free because of the miles I earned and the airline’s generous rewards program. However, I moved a few years ago to a location that is not serviced by the airline. Now the airline’s reward card is my “last ditch emergency” card since I have two other cash-back rewards cards that offer a better return (I pay all my cards in full every month).
I know that annual fees on credit cards are not good, but I’m struggling with the decision on whether to keep it or not. It is the second-oldest credit account I have and about a third of the amount of credit I can use, and I am concerned about my credit score dropping if I close it. My credit score is excellent, but I am concerned about how much of a drop in my score this would cause. I did try to “convert it” to a cash-back credit card with no annual fee, but the bank wouldn’t do it. So now I’m stuck on what to do. Should I continue to pay the $50 annual fee to keep my credit score intact, or should I close it and see if I can increase my credit on my other cards?
Answer: Most good travel rewards cards these days charge annual fees, and those fees aren’t a big deal if you’re getting airline tickets or lodging that more than offset the cost. Your card may pay for itself with a single trip if it waives baggage check fees (as many airline-branded cards do).
If you can’t even wring that much value from the card, consider closing it. Given how much of your available credit the card represents, though, you might want to open another card first. Available credit matters far more to your credit scores than the age of your accounts. And even if you close this account, your history with it will continue to be reported for many years, so you shouldn’t hold off just because it’s your second-oldest card.
Dear Liz: I am a full-time employee who just started independent consulting work on the side. I have submitted my W-9 with the company with which I am a consultant, but I know the onus will be on me to set aside federal tax payments. Here’s my question: Will I pay state taxes on my consulting income? And if so, will those taxes be paid in the state where I live or the state where the company is based?
Answer: If you live in a state that taxes income, and you have income to tax, then yes, you’ll probably have to pay state income taxes on your net income — your gross revenue minus your expenses.
“Since you are in business for yourself, contracting with another company, you will pay taxes in the state where you do the work,” said enrolled agent Eva Rosenberg of the TaxMama.com site. “If you perform the services in your own state, that’s where your taxable responsibilities lie. However, if you frequently go to the client’s location and do work there, you will be liable for taxes in that state as well.”
A good rule of thumb is to set aside half of any money you make to cover the various taxes you’ll owe, Rosenberg said.
“Payroll taxes are 15.3%. If you’re making enough to live on, you’re in the 25% bracket at least. That’s 40%,” she said. “Depending on the state, that could be another 5% to 10%.”
You probably should make quarterly estimated tax payments to avoid a penalty. Business owners, especially newly minted ones, would be smart to hire a tax pro to help them navigate their obligations.
Dear Liz: Our son is graduating from college and needs a car for his new job. Is this an opportunity to help him establish a good credit rating? His credit union offers loans to first-time auto buyers who don’t have a credit history, but the interest rate is 8.4% (6 percentage points more than standard auto loans). We parents intend to help pay for the car, so we could provide a larger down payment or help with larger payments to pay off the loan sooner as a way to reduce the higher interest costs. Would doing either of these, however, lower the credit rating he might earn? He has no other debt and has two credit cards (co-owned by us) on which he pays monthly in full. Are there better ways to help him establish his own credit rating?
Answer: If your son is a joint account holder on two credit cards, he might not have to bother with a “credit builder” loan. He should already have credit histories and credit scores that would qualify him for better rates.
He should first check his credit reports at http://www.annualcreditreport.com, the federally mandated site where people can check their credit histories annually for free.
If he has credit histories, he can take the additional step of buying at least one of his FICO scores from MyFico.com. (He can buy a total of three, one for each credit bureau.) There are other sources for free scores, but they’re usually not the scores used by most lenders. He then can ask the credit union for a quote on the interest rate he’d be charged, given his score or scores. It probably will be lower than 8.4% if he has a good history with these cards.
If he doesn’t have credit reports in his own name, he probably is an authorized user rather than a joint account holder on your cards. (Some issuers don’t export the primary cardholder’s history with a card into an authorized user’s credit files, although many do.) In that case, the credit-building loan could be a good idea, particularly if you were willing to help him pay off the loan quickly. Although there’s some advantage to paying off a loan according to schedule, your son will get most of the credit-scoring benefit just by having the loan, and he’ll save by paying it off fast.
Another way you could help is by co-signing the loan, but then you’re putting your credit at risk. If he makes a single late payment, your credit scores could suffer. If the credit union is willing to make the loan, that’s usually a better way to go.