Dear Liz: I have a roommate who has truly bad credit. He has been turned down from getting a checking account at banks because his mom bounced checks on his account when he was 18 (he is now 31). What is the best way to rehab his credit? He can’t get a secured credit card because he doesn’t have a checking account. Is there a way around this?
Answer: You may not be getting the full story from your roommate. If his mom misused his checking account when he was 18, it shouldn’t still be affecting his ability to establish a bank account. Reports to Chexsystems, the bureau that tells banks about people who have mishandled their bank accounts, typically remain on file for only five years.
Your roommate should first request a free annual report from Chexsystems at http://www.consumerdebit.com and dispute any errors or old information. Even if he’s still listed in Chexsystems, he could get a so-called “second chance” checking account from several major banks, including Wells Fargo, Chase and PNC Bank. Responsible use of those accounts should allow him to graduate to a regular checking account. Then he can start the process of rehabilitating his credit.
My new book “Deal With Your Debt” will be released in a few days (you can order it here), and I need to make some room on the bookshelf. So I’m giving away five copies of my previous book, “The 10 Commandments of Money.”
To enter to win, leave a comment here on my blog (not my Facebook page).
Click on the tab above the post that says “comments.” Make sure to include your email address, which won’t show up with your comment, but I’ll be able to see it.
If you haven’t commented before, it may take a little while for your comment to show up since comments are moderated. But rest assured, it will.
The winners will be chosen at random Friday night. Over the weekend, please check your email (including your spam filter). If I don’t hear from a winner by noon Pacific time on Monday, his or her prize will be forfeited and I’ll pick another winner.
Also, check back here often for other giveaways.
The deadline to enter is midnight Pacific time on Friday. So–comment away!
That may be changing.
Brian Kelly at The Points Guy has an excellent series of posts on the coming changes in hotel rewards programs, and there’s not much good news. (You can start with his post “The State of Hotel Loyalty Programs: A Devaluation Story.”) Starwood and Marriott are diluting their programs, but some of the most dramatic changes are in the Hilton HHonors program, which will not only require more points for most stays but will upgrade a bunch of properties to higher, more expensive categories. Hotels like the Conrad Tokyo will go from 50,000 points per night to 80,000 to 95,000 points.
In a warning to hotel loyalty programs, Kelly says these changes could come back to haunt them:
As you hack away more and more of the value proposition, I think you’ll realize that consumers are actually pretty smart and will start shifting their spend towards chains that actually reward loyalty and not punish it. This may not come in the form of traditional points, but many boutique hotels offer far more enriching experiences with more amenities and at cheaper prices. This Hilton devaluation was so brazen that I do think it will hurt them dearly in the end when Amex and Citi cardholders reduce their spend or cancel their cards. In fact, if the impact is so negative, I could see those issuers coming after Hilton since there are likely clauses in the contracts that state that Hilton can’t materially change the program (since the credit card companies are buying millions of dollars worth of points that their cardholders can use at a later time and date). I’ll be complaining to both American Express and Citi about the Hilton changes and hope everyone else considers doing so as well if you don’t like the changes.
Even if you plan to stay loyal to your card, the program devaluations underscore what has always been true: you don’t want to hoard rewards. Earn ‘em and burn ‘em to make sure you get the most value.
Dear Liz: I’ll be done paying off my car in a couple of months. What’s a good strategy for redirecting that money once it’s paid off? Should I use the whole amount each month to start saving for my next car, or would I be better off splitting it up and putting it into several savings “buckets” such as retirement, emergency and my next car? I’m 35, have an emergency fund equal to four months’ living expenses and only one other debt, a very low-interest student loan.
Answer: If you aren’t already contributing to a retirement plan, you should be. If you aren’t contributing enough, that should be your priority even before you pay off your debt.
Market researcher and Yale University professor Roger Ibbotson has found that people who start saving for retirement after age 35 have an extremely difficult time “catching up.” They’ve lost a crucial decade or more, and often can’t set aside enough to offset their late start.
If you are on track for retirement and are comfortable with your emergency fund, saving to pay cash for your next car is a reasonable course.
Dear Liz: I know a high balance on a credit card hurts your credit score and that it’s best to keep balances low and pay them off each month. But does the same theory hold true for installment borrowing such as auto or student loans, which obviously have a higher balance in the beginning of the loan repayment period?
Answer: Paying down installment loans will help your credit score, but typically not as dramatically as paying down balances on revolving debt such as credit cards.
The leading FICO credit scoring formula is much more sensitive to balances on revolving accounts. The wider the gap between your available credit and the amount you’re using, the better.
Dear Liz: My life insurance policy of $500,000 will end in four years, when I’m 63. My wife’s policy ends at age 62. Our kids are 28 and 25 and successfully launched with careers. I also have a $180,000 life insurance policy through my job that expires when I plan to retire, also at age 63. My wife and I have long-term-care insurance policies. We have $170,000 in an active investment account plus $1.4 million in our 401(k)s. Our kids also have trust funds that they will get when they turn 30 of about $80,000 each. Should I buy more life insurance for 10 to 15 years? Our estate, which is in a living trust, will pass to the kids. Our house is worth about $1 million.
Answer: The first question you must ask when it comes to life insurance is whether you need it. If you have people who are financially dependent on you, you typically do. If your wife has sufficient retirement income should you die, and vice versa, then you probably don’t.
So-called permanent or cash-value life insurance is often sold as a way to pay estate taxes, but again, it doesn’t look as if you’ll need that coverage. Congress increased the estate tax exemption limit for 2012 to $5.12 million, and that amount is tied to inflation going forward.
Still, this is a good question to pose to a fee-only financial planner, and you should be seeing one for a consultation before you retire in any case. Retirement involves too many complicated, irreversible decisions to proceed without help.
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.
Dear Liz: A lot of financial advice sites say you should have an emergency fund equal to three to six months of living expenses. What would be considered living expenses? Should you use three to six months of your net take-home pay or a smaller number? Is three to six months really enough?
Answer: Let’s tackle your last question first. The answer: No one knows.
It’s impossible to predict what financial setbacks you may face. You may not lose your job — or you may get laid off and be unemployed for many months. You may stay healthy — or you may get sick and your only hope might be experimental treatments your insurance doesn’t cover. Nothing may go wrong in your life, or many things could go wrong all at once, depleting even a fat emergency fund.
Having a prudent reserve of cash can help you survive the more likely (and less catastrophic) setbacks. Financial planners suggest that your first goal be three months’ worth of living expenses, typically defined as the bills that can’t be put off without serious consequences. That would include shelter, utilities, food, transportation, insurance, minimum loan payments and child care. Any expense that you easily could cut or postpone wouldn’t be included.
If you work in a risky industry or simply want a little more security, you can build your fund to equal six months of essential living expenses, or more. (The median duration of unemployment after the recent recession peaked at around five months, although many people were out of work for far longer.)
It can take many months, if not years, to build up even a three-month reserve. In the meantime, it can be prudent to have access to various sources of credit, including space on your credit cards or a home equity line of credit.
No matter how eager you are to have a fat emergency fund, you shouldn’t sacrifice retirement savings. For most people, saving for retirement needs to be the financial priority, with saving for other purposes fit in as you can.
Dear Liz: I am approaching being able to retire in three years at 56, but I’m really concerned with the current market conditions. I have around $320,000 in 401(k) and 457 accounts now, all of it invested in stocks. Should I scale this back to more moderate allocations? My pension will pay me around $5,200 a month, so I do not anticipate needing to withdraw from my investments before age 59.
Answer: Even if you’ve been a die-hard do-it-yourself investor until now, it’s time to get help. Retirement decisions can be incredibly complicated, and you may not have time to recover from mistakes.
A fee-only financial planner would ask, among other things, what your current living costs are and what additional expenses you expect, such as buying another car, taking trips and so on. Those details can help determine whether your savings are adequate. The planner also would ask you how you plan to pay for healthcare in retirement, since Medicare doesn’t kick in until age 65, and an individual policy at your age could eat into that pension check. Even with Medicare, Fidelity Investments estimates, a 65-year-old couple retiring this year would need $240,000 to cover medical expenses throughout retirement — not counting any money they might need to pay for nursing home or other custodial care.
What a planner probably wouldn’t do is approve having 100% of your investments in stock at any age, even with a nice pension. You may have time to ride out another market downturn, but watching half of your life savings disappear might increase the chances you’d sell out in a panic. Having a more moderate allocation that includes bonds and cash could help cushion those market swings and keep you invested.
You can get referrals to fee-only planners who charge by the hour at the Garrett Planning Network, http://www.garrettplanningnetwork.com. If you’re looking for fee-only planners who charge a retainer or a percentage of assets, you’ll find those at the National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors, http://www.napfa.org. NAPFA has tools for consumers at http://www.napfa.org/consumer/Resources.asp and the Financial Planning Assn. has tips on choosing a financial planner at http://www.fpanet.org/FindaPlanner/ChoosingaPlanner/.
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Simple retirement can be satisfying If you haven’t saved much for retirement, all is not lost as long as you’re willing to pursue a much simpler lifestyle than what you’re probably living now. One man who lives just such a life is happy he does.