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Q&A: Financing a career change

Jun 29, 2014 | | Comments (6)

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.

Categories : Credit & Debt, Q&A
Comments (6)

Dear Liz: You’ve often talked about delaying the start of Social Security benefits to maximize your check. But what about in the case of a widow? My husband died in 2006 at the age of 57. I will be 62 this year and could start receiving benefits based on his earnings. (I did not work during our marriage as I was a home-schooling mom.) I’ve been living off my husband’s modest pension benefits. Would waiting until full retirement age increase the monthly payment I would ultimately get? One of the reasons I ask is that I have an adult son who lives with me and who probably will never be able to have a job. Yet he is not officially disabled and, as far as I know, is not eligible for any kind of benefits. I wondered if it might be a good idea to start taking Social Security as soon as I could and either save or invest the monthly checks to add to what I could leave my son (I have an IRA and other assets I hope not to have to touch). My pension will cease when I die.

Answer: You could have started receiving survivor’s benefits at 60. (Those who are disabled can start survivor’s benefits as early as age 50, or at any age if they’re caring for a minor child or a child who is disabled under Social Security rules.) Since your husband died before he started benefits, your check would be based on what your husband would have received at his full retirement age of 66. If you start benefits before your own full retirement age, however, the survivor’s benefit is permanently reduced.

For many people, starting survivor’s benefits isn’t as bad an idea as starting other benefits early. That’s because survivors can switch to their own work-based benefit any time between age 62 and 70 if that benefit is larger. Starting survivors benefits early can give the survivor’s own work-based benefit a chance to grow.

In your case, however, the survivor’s benefit is all you’re going to get from Social Security. While it may be tempting to take it early and invest it, you’re unlikely to match the return you’d get from simply waiting a few years to start.

Your description of your non-working adult son as “not officially disabled” is a bit baffling. If he has a disability that truly prevents him from working, getting him qualified for government benefits would provide him with income and healthcare that would continue despite whatever happens with you. (You may not want to touch your assets, but that might be necessary if you need long-term care.) If he can work, then getting him launched and self-supporting would be of far greater benefit than hoarding your Social Security checks for him.

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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.

Comments (2)

Q&A: Closing credit cards with annual fees

Jun 15, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

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.

Categories : Credit Cards, Q&A
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Dear Liz: Most of the questions you answer about Social Security come from people who don’t have a lot of money saved. I agree with your advice that those people should delay starting benefits. That way their Social Security checks, which will be the bulk of their income in retirement, will be as large as possible. But what about those of us who won’t need the money? I will receive a good pension and thanks to real estate investments, my retirement income will exceed my current income should I retire at age 62. That means I will never have to touch my capital. I do not have any other debt and am fully insured.

My initial thought is that I should take Social Security as soon as I’m eligible and use it while I’m in good health for travel and other activities. A friend who is in a similar situation says to wait and enjoy the emotional safety that if the need arises, I can turn on the Social Security tap later and let some more money flow. If you don’t need the money now or later, but could have more fun earlier, should you take Social Security sooner?

Answer: The less you’ll need Social Security, the less it matters when you start it.

Starting benefits early locks you into lower payments for life and will result in significantly smaller lifetime benefits for most people. That’s in part because Social Security hasn’t adjusted its payment formulas even as life expectancies have expanded, so most people will live beyond the “break-even” point where delayed benefits exceed the amounts they could have received had they started earlier. Delaying benefits is particularly important for married people, since one partner is likely to outlive the other and will have to get by on a single check. Making sure that check is as large as possible will help make the surviving spouse’s final years more comfortable.

But all that assumes that you, like most people, would receive half or more of your retirement income from Social Security. If your Social Security is truly icing on the cake — you don’t need the money now, you (and your spouse) are unlikely to need it in the future, and you don’t care about maximizing your lifetime benefits — then start it whenever you want.

Categories : Estate planning, Q&A
Comments (2)

Q&A: Independent consulting and taxes

Jun 09, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

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.

Categories : Q&A, Taxes
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Q&A: Using a car loan to establish credit

Jun 09, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

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.

Categories : Credit & Debt, Q&A
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Q&A: Medicare premiums

Jun 01, 2014 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: I wanted to comment on the person who was wondering why her multimillionaire friend receives less Social Security. One reason could be that higher-income people pay more for Medicare, the health insurance program for people 65 and older. Instead of the standard $104 a month that most people pay, my wife and I pay about $375 each per month for Parts B and D. So if the person writing to you is thinking about net Social Security checks, Medicare would make quite a difference.

Answer: That’s a very good possibility. Some people don’t make the distinction between Social Security and Medicare. They’re separate government programs, but Medicare premiums are typically deducted from Social Security payments.

Categories : Q&A, Retirement
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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
Comments (5)

Dear Liz: I am 53 and divorced. My ex-husband died at the age of 49 and had contributed significantly to Social Security. I don’t plan to remarry. Would I be able to make any claim on his record as an ex-spouse when I reach age 62, or would he have had to reach retirement age for this to be possible?

Answer: If your marriage lasted at least 10 years, you could get the same benefits as a widow or widower. We’ll assume your ex was “fully insured” under Social Security, which means he paid enough into the system to qualify for benefits.

For the sake of brevity, we’ll also assume that you’re not disabled or caring for his minor or disabled child. (You could still qualify for benefits if any of these were true, but the rules would be somewhat different.)

Your survivors’ checks would be based on what he would have received had he survived until retirement (a sum known as his primary insurance amount). If he had been 62 or older when he died and had started receiving Social Security checks, your benefit would have been based on what he was actually receiving.

You can start survivors’ benefits as early as age 60 if you’re not disabled. If you start benefits before your own full retirement age, however, your benefits will be reduced because of the early start. Another thing to keep in mind is that if you don’t apply until age 62 or later and your own retirement benefits are larger than your widows’ benefit, you’ll get your own benefit instead.

On the other hand, you’re allowed to switch from his benefit to your own at any point between age 62 and age 70. It’s possible that your own benefit, left untouched to grow, eventually could exceed your survivors’ benefit. Obviously, this decision will involve crunching some numbers to see which approach makes the most sense. The Social Security Administration suggests you contact your local office or call (800) 772-1213 to learn how much you could receive on your ex’s work record, since that’s not information you can access online.

One other thing you should know: Since you’d be getting survivors’ rather than spousal benefits, you could remarry after you reach age 60 without endangering your checks. Those whose exes are still alive have to refrain from remarrying if they want their spousal benefits to continue.

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