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Dear Liz: My spouse has tenure at a university. Given that one of us will always be employed, should we change the way we look at the amount of money we keep in an emergency fund or our risk tolerance for investments?
Answer: Even tenured professors can get fired or laid off. Tenure was designed to protect academic freedom, but professors can lose their jobs because of serious misconduct, incompetence or economic cutbacks, such as when a department is eliminated or a whole university is closed. About 2% of tenured faculty are dismissed in a typical year, according to the National Education Assn.’s Higher Education Department.
That’s more job security than in most occupations, of course. Your spouse also may have access to a defined benefit pension, which would give him or her a guaranteed income stream in retirement. Those factors mean you reasonably can take more risk with your other investments.
As for your emergency fund, you may be fine with savings equal to three months of expenses. But consider that if your spouse were to be dismissed, he or she probably would have a tough time finding an equivalent position. If the institution starts having financial difficulties or if there is any reason to suspect that he or she could be dismissed, a fatter fund could come in handy.
Here are some ideas to cut your costs:
Travel outside the box. Your options aren’t just “fly or drive”? Donna Freedman recommends checking out the Megabus. “I went from Philly to NYC for $1.50. Could make day trips really cheap.” She also traveled on the Megabus in the United Kingdom for a fraction of what the train fare would have cost. Speaking of trains, overnight trips on Amtrak can be pretty expensive, but we’ve scored free roomettes (double-bunk sleeper) and bedrooms on overnight trips up and down the West Coast using Starwood points that we dumped into Amtrak’s Guest Rewards program.
Book strategically. The best day to book airfares is often Tuesday, while the cheapest day to fly is usually Wednesday. But Bing’s price predictor can help you figure out whether to snap up a fare or wait a little longer. (Just search for an airfare, and the predictor will give you the likelihood the current fare will increase or drop.) Join frequent flyer programs and sign up for email newsletters so you can hear about special sales. Kiplinger has more here in its “21 secrets to save on travel.”
Rescue orphaned miles. Got points in a travel program you no longer use? You may be able to shift them to a loyalty program you do use. Check out Webflyer.com’s Mileage Converter to explore the possibilities. Speaking of points:
Don’t settle for expensive. Last-minute trips don’t have to be budget-busters. Airlines may release more seats a few days prior to the flight so that you can book them with frequent flyer miles. Priceline and Hotwire are great places to bid for cheap flights, rooms and cars.
Re-shop your reservations. Change fees make rebooking airfares tough on most carriers, but you can typically change hotel and car rental reservations without penalty. I usually book a few months in advance, then check three weeks out and again a week out to see if hotel or car rates have fallen.
Plan cheap fun. Last time we visited Hawaii we bought an Entertainment book for the islands before we left. The $10 we spent for the book was offset with our first museum visit; the coupons for other activities and restaurants were a bonus. Donna suggests talking to locals and doing searches for “free/cheap things to doyou’re your destination. “Maybe something just opened & isn’t on the general radar yet,” she noted.
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.
- How to take advantage of dropping airfares
- How to plan financially for travel and take advantage of discounts
- Good apps and Web sites to use
- When to consider home swaps or rentals instead of a hotel
- How to handle travel setbacks and emergencies
And much, much more.
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.
Dear Liz: My father-in-law’s spouse recently died. He is 89 and not in very good health. He has assets of about $3 million and lives in a state (Pennsylvania) that has an inheritance tax. What can he do to avoid state taxes and make sure his assets go where he wants them to go? He does not like to talk about these things but I’m trying to help. I have no interest in benefits to myself but I would hate to see his assets go to the state.
Answer: It’s one thing to encourage a parent or in-law to set up estate documents that protect them should they become incapacitated. Everyone should have durable powers of attorney drawn up so that someone else can make healthcare and financial decisions for them if they’re unable to do so.
It’s quite another matter to urge a potential benefactor to make sure the maximum amounts possible land in inheritors’ laps, especially if he or she doesn’t want to discuss the matter. You may need to accept that not everyone is interested in minimizing taxes for his heirs. Your father-in-law’s resistance to talk about these things is a good indicator that you should back off.
It’s not as if the majority of his assets will wind up in state coffers anyway. Although Pennsylvania is one of the few states that has an inheritance tax, the rate isn’t exorbitant for most inheritors. (Unlike estate taxes, which are based on the size of the estate, inheritance taxes are based on who inherits. Your father-in-law doesn’t have to worry about estate taxes, since the federal exemption limit is now over $5 million and Pennsylvania doesn’t have a state estate tax.) In Pennsylvania, property left to “lineal descendants” — which includes parents, grandparents, children and grandchildren — faces tax rates of 4.5%. The tax rate is 12% for the dead person’s siblings and 15% for all others. Surviving spouses are exempt.
If he were interested in reducing future inheritance taxes, your father-in-law could move to one of the many states that doesn’t have such a tax. He also could give assets away before he dies, either outright or through an irrevocable trust. He may not be interested in or comfortable with any of those solutions. If he is, it’s up to him to take action. If he needs help or encouragement, let your wife or one of her siblings provide it. In estate planning matters, it’s usually best for in-laws to take a back seat.
Dear Liz: Could you advise us on how to protect our 93-year-old mother’s assets if she should become ill or die? She does not have a living will or a trust regarding her two properties.
Answer: “If” she should become ill or die? Your mother has been fortunate to have had a long life, presumably without becoming incapacitated, but her luck can’t hold out forever.
Your mother needs several legal documents to protect both herself and her assets. Perhaps the most important are powers of attorney for healthcare and for finances. These documents allow people she designates to make medical decisions and handle her finances for her should she become incapacitated. In addition, she may want to fill out a living will, which would outline the life-prolonging care she would and wouldn’t want if she can’t make her wishes known. (In some states, living wills are combined with powers of attorney for healthcare, and in others they are separate documents.)
These legal papers aren’t important just for the elderly, by the way. You should have these too, since a disabling illness or accident can happen to anyone.
Your mother also should consider a will or a living trust that details how she wants to parcel out her estate to her heirs. Of the two documents, wills tend to be simpler and cheaper to draft, but a living trust means the court process known as probate can be avoided. The probate process is public, and in some states (particularly California) it can be protracted and expensive. A living trust also could make it easier for someone to take over managing her finances in case of incapacity or death.
You can find an attorney experienced in estate planning by contacting your state’s bar association. Expertise and competence are important, so you may want to look for a lawyer who is a member of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel, an invitation-only group that includes many of the best in this field.
If she or you are trying to protect her assets from long-term care or other medical costs, you’ll need someone experienced in elder care law to advise you. You can get referrals from the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys at http://www.naela.org.
Dear Liz: We are in our 60s and looking to downsize. We’re living in an apartment now and don’t like it, so we want to buy a small house. Also, our finances took some serious hits in the recent economy and we’re trying to rebuild. But in trying to sell our possessions, we’re learning that people want us to discount the item beyond belief or even expect to get it for free. People talk about using Craigslist and EBay to generate cash but it looks like a waste of time. Do you know of other options?
Answer: Your two goals are somewhat in conflict with each other, so you need to clarify which is more important. Is your primary aim to shed your excess stuff so you can get on with your life? If that’s the case, then your focus should be on getting rid of what you don’t need rather than squeezing top dollar from it. If it’s more important to harvest the maximum value from these unwanted items, you’ll need to invest more time and effort in marketing your goods.
It may help your decision-making to get a reality check on the value of your stuff. If you believe that you have some quality items — antique furniture, rare collectibles or expensive artwork — you could hire an appraiser to give you an idea of their market value as well as some ideas where these items could be sold.
Consignment stores and auctions can sell your stuff, although you typically have to split the proceeds. Another possibility if you have quality items is to hire a company that specializes in estate sales to sell your things. These companies also typically take a hefty percentage of the sale proceeds — often 30% or more.
If what you own is mostly mass-produced, though, you’re unlikely to recoup much of what you spent. Many people erroneously cling to the idea that their possessions are worth what they paid for them, or at least something close to that. In fact, that purchase price is what economists call a “sunk cost,” which can’t be recouped. The best you can do is get fair market value for your items. “Fair market value” doesn’t mean the price you think is fair; it means what a willing buyer would pay a willing seller when neither is under any duress to buy or sell.
Craigslist and EBay are two marketplaces that can give you a pretty good idea of what those values might be.
Dear Liz: Help! We’ve just received devastating news from our accountant that we owe around $11,000 to the IRS and the state for 2012 taxes. The reason for the huge bill is that we cleaned out my husband’s IRA to pay for our son’s college expenses. My husband is almost 65 and working part time after being laid off, and I’m 61 with a full-time job. What is the best way to pay this bill? Here are the options I can think of: 1) Cash out my three-month emergency certificate of deposit of $12,000 that I’ve saved to cover expenses in case I get laid off. 2) Take money out of my IRA. 3) Use a credit card check that will be at zero percent for the first 12 months and then will slide to 8.9%. 4) Arrange a payment loan with the IRS. 5) Sell our house in which we have 70% equity. Which is best?
Answer: Let’s take No. 2 off the table, shall we? If you learn nothing else from this experience, it should be that tapping retirement funds can trigger a big (and often unnecessary) tax bill.
Selling your house over an $11,000 bill is overkill, so let’s eliminate that option as well. Which leads us to three remaining possibilities: Use cash, borrow from a credit card or borrow from the IRS.
Borrowing incurs costs. That zero percent credit offer almost certainly comes with a fee, which is usually 3% to 5% of the total. If you can’t pay the balance within a year, you start incurring interest charges.
The short-term rate the IRS charges for installment loans is pretty low — lately it’s been around 3% — but you also typically incur late-payment penalties. The penalty typically is one-half of 1% of the tax you owe each month or part of a month until the bill is paid in full. If you file by the return due date, that rate drops to one-quarter of 1% for any month in which an installment agreement is in effect. The maximum penalty is 25% of the tax due.
How much either option will cost you depends on how long you take to pay the bill. The cost for cashing out the CD is, by contrast, almost zero. Whatever tiny amount of interest you’re getting is far less than what borrowing would cost you. If you should get laid off before you rebuild your emergency fund, your access to cheap credit could come in handy.
Going forward, let your son pay for his college expenses and conserve what’s left of your resources for retirement.
Dear Liz: You recently answered a question from a reader who found an old refund check that couldn’t be cashed. You pointed out that checks typically must be cashed within six months or they’re worthless. But your reader should check the unclaimed-property department of his state. Each state has laws that all companies must follow that typically require them to turn over or “escheat” amounts from uncashed checks, dormant checking accounts, unclaimed utility deposits and other accounts. The consumer should write a letter to the company that issued the check (sent certified mail) with a copy of the front and back of the check to find out whether they escheated the funds. The consumer should also check Unclaimed.org and talk to the state that the company is based in along with his current state. Please encourage him to keep the check and not give up. Unclaimed-property laws are not well known, and they are there to protect the consumer.
Answer: Thanks for your suggestion. Not all companies follow the laws regarding unclaimed property. If this company had, it presumably would have referred this customer to the appropriate unclaimed-property department when he called asking for a replacement check. Still, checking the state treasury departments on Unclaimed.org is relatively easy and certainly worth a try.