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: I am about to begin graduate school to get my master’s degree in nursing to eventually become an advanced registered nurse practitioner. I have Googled scholarships, grants, fellowships, and am coming up empty-handed. I am fearfully looking at student loans to finance my degree (it would be about $34,000). I am appalled at the rates on federal student loans, and private school loans or just personal private loans are even worse. Are there any other options that I haven’t discovered? I don’t have any school debt to date, so this is all very daunting.
Answer: Let’s start with the good news: Your education should pay off. Advanced registered nurse practitioners earn a median of $86,625, according to the salary tracking site Payscale. That compares with a median of $55,311 for a registered nurse. There are no guarantees in education, any more than there are in life, but you should be able to recoup the cost of your education fairly quickly.
To find scholarships, you need to know where to look. One place to start is the Fastweb database, which tracks scholarships, grants and other financial aid programs. Fastweb lists the National Student Nurses Assn., the American Assn. of Colleges of Nursing and a variety of smaller programs, many of which are school-specific, publisher Mark Kantrowitz said. If you’re willing to serve in a high-need area, you also can check out HRSA Nurse Corps Scholarship (at http://www.hrsa.gov/loanscholarships/scholarships/nursing/). The ROTC also offers scholarships.
“Many employers of nurses provide signing bonuses or loan repayment assistance programs to help new nurses repay their student loans, since nurses remain in demand,” Kantrowitz noted.
You’re smart to be cautious about education debt, since too many people have overdosed on student loans. However, student loans in moderation can help you get ahead financially if you’re borrowing for the right education.
Since there’s strong demand in your field and excellent pay, you shouldn’t shy away from federal student loans, which offer fixed interest rates and a number of consumer protections, including forbearance and deferral in the event you become unemployed. You would be borrowing far less than you’re likely to make the first year after you graduate, so your payments shouldn’t be burdensome. If you decide to pursue a career in public health or work for a nonprofit, you could qualify for federal student loan forgiveness after 10 years.
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: I am a junior in college, and I might have to take out a loan my senior year because of financial cuts in the state. Is it really a bad idea to take a loan for college?
Answer: No, it’s not. You don’t want to overdose on education debt, but a student loan that helps you get the right degree could be the best investment you’ll ever make.
Someone with a college degree will earn on average $2.3 million over the course of a working lifetime, which is $1 million more than the lifetime earnings of someone with just a high school diploma, according to a study by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University in Washington. College graduates also are more likely to stay employed. The unemployment rate for people with college degrees is about half of that for people with only high school diplomas.
Of course, you’ll want to make sure there is sufficient demand for your degree to justify the costs of your education, since all college degrees are not created equal. PayScale, a site that tracks salary information, has a report on its site called “Majors That Pay You Back” that monitors median starting and mid-career incomes for various degrees.
You’ve probably heard horror stories about people winding up with massive amounts of expensive student debt. In many cases, these scholars used private student loans, which have variable rates and lack the protections of federal student loans.
Limit how much you borrow. In general, don’t borrow more than you expect to make your first year out of school. Also, exhaust all available federal student loans before you consider a private loan. If you can work a part-time job or increase your hours to avoid a private loan, do it — but don’t work so many hours that you can’t complete your schoolwork.
A loan that helps you complete school would be far better than dropping out now, since the economic payoff from a college education requires that you actually get your degree.
Dear Liz: I’ve seen advertisements for services that promise to help you raise your credit score by the exact number of points you need to qualify for a good mortgage rate. Are these services worth the money?
Answer: There’s one thing you need to know about these services: They don’t have access to the actual FICO formula, which is proprietary. So what they’re doing is essentially guesswork.
They may suggest that you can raise your score a certain number of points in a certain time frame, but the FICO formula isn’t that predictable. Any given action can have different results, depending on the details of your individual credit reports.
Rather than pay money to a firm making such promises, use that cash to pay down any credit card debt you have. Widening the gap between your available credit and your balances can really boost your scores. Other steps you should take include paying your bills on time, disputing serious errors on your credit reports and refraining from opening or closing accounts.
Dear Liz: You recently answered a reader who wondered whether he could delay mandatory distributions from his traditional IRA because he was still working. You said correctly that he could delay taking required minimum distributions from a 401(k) but not an IRA. But as long as the questioner is working full time and meets the other tests, he could contribute to a Roth IRA. That would allow him to re-invest part or all of the required distribution. Tax would have to be paid on the distribution, but the money could continue to be invested in an account that isn’t taxed on the earnings annually.
Answer: That’s an excellent point. Withdrawals from IRAs, SEPs, SIMPLE IRAs and SARSEPS typically must begin after age 701/2. The required minimum distribution each year is calculated by dividing the IRA account balance as of Dec. 31 of the prior year by the applicable distribution period or life expectancy. (Tables for calculating these figures can be found in Appendix C of IRS Publication 590, Individual Retirement Arrangements.)
Anyone who has earned income, however, may still contribute to a Roth IRA even after mandatory withdrawals have begun, as long as he or she doesn’t earn too much. (The ability to contribute to a Roth begins to phase out once modified adjusted gross income exceeds $112,000 for singles and $178,000 for married couples.) There are no required minimum distribution rules for Roth IRAs during the owner’s lifetime. As you noted, the contributor still has to pay tax on the withdrawal, but in a Roth IRA it could continue to grow tax free.
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Dear Liz: I just turned 70. Must I draw now from my IRA? I still work full time. I heard from one investment company representative that since I work, there is an exemption that I may not have to start withdrawals. Is this true?
Answer: Withdrawals from retirement plans typically must begin after age 70-1/2. You can postpone withdrawals from your company’s 401(k) plan past the typical required minimum distribution age if you’re still working, but not from traditional IRAs.
“An IRA owner must commence distributions from an IRA by April 1 of the calendar year following the year in which the IRA owner turns 70-1/2,” said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for tax research firm CCH Tax & Accounting North America, “regardless of whether they are still working or not.”
With 401(k) plans, required withdrawals can be delayed to April 1 of the year following the year you retire, unless you’re a 5% or more owner of the business, Luscombe said.
It’s important to get this right, since failing to make required minimum distributions triggers a tax penalty of 50% on the amount not withdrawn that should have been. The required minimum distribution rules apply to all employer-sponsored retirement plans, including profit-sharing plans, 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans and 457(b) plans, the IRS says, as well as to traditional IRAs and IRA-based plans such as SEPs, SARSEPs and SIMPLE IRAs. Required minimum distribution rules also apply to Roth 401(k) accounts, but not to Roth IRAs while the owner is alive.
Dear Liz: I’m working as a contractor in Afghanistan. Since we are overseas in a combat zone, our pay is nontaxable. Can I contribute some of this untaxed money to a Roth IRA and still be able to withdraw it tax free in retirement? I’ve heard that’s true, but the way I read the law it seems that the money has to come from “taxable” wages or something along those lines. I need clarification.
Answer: If you were serving in the military, rather than as a contractor, you would be able to contribute some of your untaxed combat-zone pay to a Roth IRA and have tax-free withdrawals in retirement. That’s a unique perk of the military, however.
Service members’ tax-free combat zone pay qualifies as income for purposes of making an IRA or Roth IRA contribution because of the 2006 Heroes Earned Retirement Opportunities Act, said Joseph Montanaro, a certified financial planner with USAA.
If your pay is tax free as a contractor, it’s probably because you qualify for the foreign earned income exclusion, which protects some or all of your pay from U.S. taxes (up to $95,100 for 2012), Montanaro said. Your eligibility for this exclusion has nothing to do with working in a combat zone. It has to do with your residence or physical presence abroad.
Income that is excluded this way cannot be used as compensation for the purpose of making an IRA contribution, Montanaro said. It would, however, have to be included when determining your eligibility to make a Roth contribution.