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The Basics Category

Q&A: Saving loose change

Sep 29, 2014 | | Comments (1)

Dear Liz: My husband recently told me that he has saved many coffee cans full of loose change over the years. When I suggested we might at least roll the change to make it easier to count should we ever need it, he was not interested! I understand he just wants it available in an emergency, but just the transportation of these things to a coin counter (that may or may not be available) makes me want to find a better way to honor his idea of saving change in a more realistic way. Perhaps roll while watching TV, then ask a bank to convert to dollar coins as a way to reduce the bulk?

Answer: It’s hard to imagine how your husband expects to deploy those coins in an emergency. Does he envision lugging them to the grocery store or gas station? Does he imagine any retailer would accept a coffee can of change as payment? Many retailers won’t even accept rolled coins, since they don’t know what’s inside those wrappers.

Converting the coins into bills, or better yet to savings in a bank, is a far more practical option. You can use commercial coin sorters, but they typically take a hefty cut. Coinstar, for example, charges a 10.9% service fee, although that is waived if you choose to be paid with a retailer’s gift card or voucher.

Another place to check is your bank. Some have coin sorters available to customers, although you may have to deposit the result rather than take it immediately in cash.

Alternatively, your bank may supply you with wrappers — or it may not accept change at all. The only way to know is to call and ask.

If you do decide to roll the change, consider making a small investment in a coin sorter. You can spend $200 or more on a commercial version, but there are well-reviewed versions on Amazon that cost around $25.

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Q&A: Keeping financial records

Sep 15, 2014 | | Comments (0)

Dear Liz:I have a garage full of old financial records. I believe I need to keep only seven years of information for tax purposes. Is that correct? However, I have decades of receipts on house repairs and improvements since I believe there is some cumulative tax credit that might someday be important. Also, I have kept receipts on personal and household purchases in case of a loss that required an insurance claim. Am I keeping too much paper?

Answer: Yes. Here’s what you need to know.

Many tax experts recommend hanging on to your tax returns indefinitely, but you can shred most supporting documents after seven years when the risk of audit ends (unless you’re significantly underreporting income or committing fraud).

When it comes to assets such as homes or stocks, you should keep supporting documentation for as long as you own the asset plus seven years.

That includes receipts for home improvements, but not repairs. You can’t take a deduction for either home repairs or improvements, but the cost of improvements may help you reduce any taxable profit should you sell your home. In Publication 530, the IRS defines an improvement as something that “materially adds to the value of your home, considerably prolongs its useful life, or adapts it to new uses.” Examples include putting an addition on your home, replacing an entire roof, paving your driveway, installing central air conditioning or rewiring your home. You can’t include improvements that are no longer part of your home. If you install carpeting and then rip it out to install hardwood, for example, you can no longer include the carpeting cost as an improvement.

You would have to have a considerable profit for those receipts to come in handy. The first $250,000 of home-sale profit, per person, is tax free. If you’re married, that means you wouldn’t face capital gains taxes on your home sale unless your profit exceeded $500,000.

Keep in mind that the IRS accepts electronic records. If you’re concerned about tossing paperwork you might later need, consider scanning everything first and maintaining a backup copy off site, either in the cloud or in a safe-deposit box.

Chances are good your insurer also accepts electronic records and scans of receipts, but call and ask first. Keeping receipts for insurance purposes is a good idea, as long as you cull the ones for items you no longer own.

Categories : Banking, Q&A, The Basics
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Q&A: Converting currency abroad

Aug 25, 2014 | | Comments (2)

Dear Liz: After reading your column about the best ways to pay while traveling in Europe, I want to share my experience. I was unhappy with the foreign transaction fee charged on my Citibank credit card, so on my next trip to Europe I primarily used my Capital One card. Imagine my disappointment to find that Capital One’s currency conversion formula was much less favorable to me than Citibank’s.

Answer: Credit card expert Odysseas Papadimitriou suspects you were comparing purchases made on different days, or even on different trips. Although one of your cards charges a foreign transaction fee and the other doesn’t, both cards get the most favorable rate from their card network’s exchange rate. Visa cards would get the Visa card network exchange rate, while MasterCard would get the MasterCard network exchange rate. If both your cards were Visas, for example, they would get the same exchange rate, but the one that charged the foreign transaction fee would increase your cost by that amount (typically 1% to 3%).

There may be “tiny” differences between those Visa and MasterCard exchange rates on a given day, but one wouldn’t be “much less favorable” than the other, Papadimitriou said.

And the exchange rates are certainly better than what you’d get by exchanging dollars for euros at a bank in advance of your trip, or by using currency exchange services once you got there.

So the fact remains that the cheapest way to convert currency is to do so automatically by making purchases with a credit or debit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. Here’s another suggestion for reducing fees abroad:

Dear Liz: One option for folks traveling to Europe to save money on ATM withdrawals is to check with their bank and find out if there is a checking or savings account that carries the benefit of the bank canceling foreign ATM fees as well as their own fees. Before I traveled to Scotland to visit my daughter, I switched accounts at my bank to one where there are no fees for using other banks’ ATMs. Worked brilliantly!

Answer: If your own bank doesn’t offer this option, it may be worth setting up a checking account with a bank that does. As mentioned in the previous column, Charles Schwab’s high-yield checking account offers unlimited ATM fee rebates worldwide with no foreign transaction fees, and Capital One 360, the online bank, waives ATM fees and absorbs MasterCard’s 1% foreign transaction fee. USAA Bank charges a 1% foreign transaction fee but doesn’t charge a fee for the first 10 ATM withdrawals.

Categories : Banking, Q&A, The Basics
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Dear Liz: My friend and I are widowed and really not money-wise. What is the best form of money to use in Europe, including Budapest, Vienna and various small towns? I’ve heard small-town merchants (and maybe even those in cities) don’t take credit cards, but even if they do, our bank charges substantial fees. I’ve also heard negative things about using ATMs. We’re going to be in most places only for one night, so getting each area’s currency would be cumbersome.

Answer: Americans accustomed to paying with plastic can be surprised to discover that merchants abroad, including some hotel owners, want to be paid in cash. Even businesses that accept credit cards may balk at processing U.S. cards, since our plastic lacks the more secure chip-and-PIN technology now used by most of the rest of the world.
So you’d be smart while traveling abroad to have multiple ways to pay and to choose methods that don’t ding you with excessive fees.

Let’s start with credit cards. Carry at least one with a Visa or MasterCard logo, because those are the most widely accepted brands in Europe. Call your issuers to see whether they charge foreign transaction fees. Many do, and these fees of up to 3% make every purchase more expensive than it needs to be. If all of your cards charge such fees, consider applying for one that doesn’t. Capital One waives foreign transaction fees on all of its cards, according to financial comparison site NerdWallet. Other cards that waive such fees, and which offer rich travel rewards, include Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard, Chase Sapphire Preferred and BankAmericard Travel Rewards Credit Card.

Whichever card you use, call the issuer to let it know the dates you’ll be abroad. Otherwise your issuer may shut down your account for suspicious activity. Carry a backup card (and alert its issuer) in case your primary account is compromised or mistakenly blocked.

When you need local currency, the best way to get it is often from a bank ATM. Travel guru Rick Steves, who spends a few months in Europe each year and primarily uses cash, suggests you avoid “independent” ATMs run by companies such as Travelex, Euronet and Forex because of their often-high fees. Bank ATMs in Europe typically don’t charge usage fees, although your home bank may levy a $2 to $5 flat fee plus a foreign transaction fee of 1% or more for every withdrawal.

You can minimize usage fees by making infrequent but large withdrawals. Or you can use a checking account that doesn’t charge fees. Charles Schwab’s high-yield checking account offers unlimited ATM fee rebates worldwide with no foreign transaction fees, according to Brian Kelly of the travel rewards site ThePointsGuy.com. If you have an account with Capital One 360, the online bank, ATM fees are waived and the bank absorbs MasterCard’s 1% foreign transaction fee. USAA Bank charges a 1% foreign transaction fee but doesn’t charge a fee for the first 10 ATM withdrawals.

If you do find yourself carrying a lot of cash abroad, consider bringing a money belt that tucks under your clothes. That’s generally more secure than carrying money in a wallet or purse. And have a great trip!

Categories : Q&A, The Basics
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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.

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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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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.

Categories : Q&A, Saving Money, The Basics
Comments (7)

Don’t invest emergency cash

Dec 23, 2013 | | Comments Comments Off

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.

Categories : Investing, Q&A, The Basics
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Dear Liz: In your answer about filial responsibility, your statement that the letter writer’s financial situation is the result of her own choices and that she needs to stop blaming her parents is completely misjudged and inappropriate. Clearly, the writer is not blaming the parents and seems amazingly strong and clear thinking for one with her early background.

Answer: Here’s what the writer wrote about her situation:

“I am an only child in my late 30s and received no financial help from [my mother] from the age of 18. In addition, my father died when I was very young, leaving us fairly destitute with no life insurance. I feel that both of these legacies have contributed to my less-than-optimal financial situation.”

The writer goes on to say that she’s trying to catch up financially but she feels it would be futile because she may have to support her mother in the future.

The writer started her adult life at a financial disadvantage compared with people whose parents helped them pay for college. She may now regret the choices she made — perhaps she took on too much student loan debt or spent more than she earned to make up for early deprivation. Those were her choices, however, and at some point she needs to take responsibility for them. Twenty years later, it’s time to let go of the idea that her financial situation is her parents’ fault.

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Dear Liz: What are your thoughts on charitable giving? I hear about tithing (giving 10% of income) but would have real problems trying to maintain that commitment. That said, I’d like to become a regular donor to a reputable charity.

Answer: Most U.S. households give to charity, according to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, but the average contribution rate for those who give is closer to 3% than 10%.

If you want to step up your charitable giving, take the time to plan and prioritize as you would any other part of your financial life.

Making larger donations to a few charities is typically better than scattershot donations to a bunch of causes, said Ken Berger, the president and chief executive of nonprofit watchdog Charity Navigator. Charities spend money to process donations, and those costs tend to eat up more of small donations, he said. A $100 donation to a single charity might incur $2 in processing costs, leaving $98 for good works, Berger noted. The same $100, spread among 10 charities, would require each to spend $2 for processing — leaving just $80.

Because smaller donations don’t benefit charities as much, some are tempted to increase their “yield” by selling your information to other charities or repeatedly hitting you up for additional contributions, Berger said. Giving more allows you more leverage to ask that your information not be sold and that the charity limit its appeals.

You can research charities at websites such as Charity Navigator and GuideStar to make sure you understand their finances and how effective they are in reaching their goals.

Finally, consider setting up automatic donations rather than rushing to make contributions at year’s end. Some companies have payroll deductions for charities, or you can set up a recurring charge on a credit or debit card. Making your contributions automatic helps ensure you can achieve your charitable giving goals. It’s like saving or “paying yourself first” — when you don’t have to constantly remind yourself to do it, it’s more likely to get done.

Categories : Budgeting, Q&A, The Basics
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