Dear Liz: As a CPA financial advisor to individuals and small businesses, I devour your column. It’s almost always spot on. But the first sentence of your advice to the person whose 401(k) doesn’t offer a match — “start looking for a better job” — was not, and you missed an opportunity to educate your readers in how to compare job compensation.
I encourage my small-business and wage-earning clients to adopt a “total compensation” view to evaluate labor costs and to talk wages with their employees or employers. Employer A offering $100,000 might be better, worse or equal to Employer B offering $70,000 plus retirement plan match and, more importantly, employer-subsidized family health insurance. Besides the intangible factor of job satisfaction, one just doesn’t know which employer’s total financial compensation is “better” without crunching the numbers before and after tax. The two companies might be different only in philosophy of how compensation is paid, not better or worse.
Answer: Some jobs come with pensions or pay so good that the lack of a company 401(k) match is all but irrelevant. It’s safe to say those jobs are not in the majority. The median full-time wage at the end of last year was under $44,000, which means half of all workers earned less. Given stagnant incomes and rising costs, many workers have a tough time saving, so the extra help provided by a company match can make a world of difference in their ability to achieve a comfortable retirement.
Nine out of 10 employers that have a 401(k) offer a match, according to PlanSponsor.com, so plans that don’t are definitely outliers. The most common match is now 100%, or one dollar for each dollar contributed, up to 6% of the worker’s salary, according to the most recent Aon Hewitt study. Nineteen percent of the employers surveyed offered this match, up from 10% in 2011. The most common match used to be 50 cents for each dollar contributed up to 6% of salary.
Clearly, more employers are getting the message that good company matches are an excellent way to signal that they care about their employees’ futures.
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.
Dear Liz: One of my credit cards offers mediocre rewards — mainly an online store where I can use points to buy products I don’t really need. I would like a card from the same company that offers better rewards, but this is my oldest credit card and I don’t want to hurt my credit score by closing it. Should I just open a new card and use this one sparingly? Can I call the company to seek better rewards without closing the account? Thanks for any help you can offer.
Answer: If you have plenty of other open accounts, don’t be afraid of closing one occasionally. Most credit issuers continue to report the details of closed accounts to the credit bureaus for years, so your good history with this card will continue to contribute positively to your scores even if you close the account.
With that in mind, you can call the issuer and ask for a better deal, which will usually mean opening a new card. You also can shop for new cards at one of the many card comparison sites, such as NerdWallet, Cardratings.com or Creditcards.com.
Dear Liz: My son is 52 and has been unemployed for three years. He has been forced to withdraw money from his 401(k) and pay early withdrawal penalties on it to pay his mortgage and other bills. Is there such a thing as a hardship exception to avoid this tax bill?
Answer: There’s a way to avoid the 10% federal penalty, but not income tax, on early withdrawals from retirement accounts when someone is under 591/2 (the usual age when penalties end). The distributions must be made as part of a series of “substantially equal periodic payments” made using that person’s life expectancy. When these distributions are taken from a qualified retirement plan, such as a 401(k), the person making them must be “separated from service” — in other words, not employed by the company offering the plan.
Your son wouldn’t be able to withdraw big chunks of his savings, however. Someone his age who has a $100,000 balance in a retirement plan could take out about $3,000 per year without penalty. Revenue Ruling 2002-62, available on the IRS site, lists the methods people can use to determine these periodic payments. If he might benefit from this approach, it would be smart to have a tax pro review his calculations.
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.
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/.