FT Press is offering half off (and free shipping!) on a selection of finance and investing titles through May 16. In addition to two of mine, “Deal with Your Debt” and “Your Credit Score,” the titles include Gail MarksJarvis’ excellent “Saving for Retirement” and Lynn O’Shaughnessy’s “The College Solution,” a must-read for any parent who wants his or her kids to go to college. To order, use the link above and enter coupon code FTPF at checkout.
I’d like to thank FT Press for organizing this promotion as well as yesterday’s Tweetchat, and thanks also to the other personal finance bloggers who took part:
- MP Dunleavey formerly of MSN Money and Daily Worth
- Gary Foreman of The Dollar Stretcher
- Donna Freedman of MSN Money and Surviving and Thriving
- Mary Hunt of Debt Proof Living
- J.D. Roth, founder of Get Rich Slowly and More Than Money
- Steve Rhode, the Get Out of Debt Guy
You can check out the conversation on Twitter using hashtag #FTPersonalFinance or visit our Tweetchat room.
Experian stopped offering FICO scores to consumers a few years ago, even though it continued to sell the scores to lenders. This refusal made it tough for consumers to know what rates they should expect from mortgage lenders, which typically take the middle of your three FICO scores (one from each bureau). You could still get your TransUnion and Equifax FICOs from MyFico.com, but not your Experian FICO.
That’s apparently about to change. Buried in a press release today was an announcement that Experian will once again “make FICO Scores available to consumers through myFICO.com and through third parties.”
Great Auntie M. was a lovely older woman, and she was besotted with her cat. Great Auntie M. once told me that if she died first, she wanted the cat euthanized since he “couldn’t possibly live” without her.
Just as Great Auntie M. misunderstood the fundamental nature of cats, so many people misunderstand the fundamental nature of credit scores. There are more than a few parallels between the two, so let me explain:
They’re finicky. Your cat may turn up its nose as its food bowl, or kick litter out of a box that’s not perfectly clean. Credit scores are similarly fussy about certain things: paying bills on time, not using too much of your available credit limits, not applying for new credit too often.
They hold grudges. When my husband moved in with his sister years ago, her cat was not amused by the presence of a new person. The cat expressed himself by depositing a single turd in the exact middle of hubby’s bed. One of our own cats once stalked up behind her brother, lifted up her paw like a prizefighter and smashed his head with it. There was no immediate provocation to this act of vengeance, so we can only speculate what he did earlier to tick her off. Credit scores don’t quickly forgive infractions, either, especially big ones. A single skipped payment can affect your scores for up to three years, a foreclosure for up to seven years, a bankruptcy for up to 10 years. (The impact decreases over time if you use credit responsibly, but it can still persist.)
They have their own agenda. Cats can be cuddly, playful, affectionate. (I have one sitting on my lap right now, monitoring my typing.) But cats typically are independent. They can withdraw affection in an instant, stalk away and regard you with indifference. Cats feel no obligation to oblige, conform or bend to the will of another. They are, in other words, the polar opposite of the dog now sleeping at my feet, a desperate-to-please golden retriever whose primary need is reassurance that yes, he is still part of the pack.
Like cats, credit scoring formulas don’t particularly care what you think. Credit scores were constructed for lenders, not consumers. In fact, originally you were never supposed to know that credit scores even existed, let alone what yours were. Credit scores have their own, internal logic that they follow, regardless of its impact on you.
Here’s another similarity: credit scores, like cats, can reward you if you figure out what they like and don’t like. With both, the effort is worthwhile.
I’ll be joined by some of my favorite bloggers: J.D. Roth of Get Rich Slowly, Donna Freedman of Surviving and Thriving, Mary Hunt of Debt Proof Living, MP Dunleavey formerly of Daily Worth, Steve Rhode, the Get Out of Debt Guy, and Gary Foreman of the Dollar Stretcher.
We’ll tweet about credit scores, saving for retirement, paying off debt, saving for college and more. To tune in, use the hashtag #FTPersonalFinance and click over to our Twitter Chat Room to track the conversation.
You can subject questions in advance to @FTPress or by email firstname.lastname@example.org. A few questioners will be picked at random to receive a free copy of my book Deal with Your Debt. Everybody who participates can receive 50% off FT Press’ personal finance titles.
So join us Thursday!
My column today, “10 dog breeds that rile insurers up,” discusses how your pet’s breed could cause some companies to deny coverage or charge you more.
The breeds include various types of terriers commonly called “pit bulls,” as well as Dobermans, Rottweilers, German Shepherds, Huskies, Cane Corso and Mastiffs.
These so-called “breed lists” aren’t used by all insurers and tend to change as the types of dogs involved in attacks change (something that’s often related to breed popularity). There’s a reason that “nippy” dogs such as Chihuahuas and dachshunds aren’t on these lists: although they may be more likely to bite, they can’t do the damage that a bigger breed can. The average insurance claim for a dog bite is nearly $30,000, which implies a whole lot of pain.
If you own a dog that’s on an insurer’s breed list, or if you simply want to avoid expensive lawsuits and the possibility of harming others, there are plenty of ways to reduce your liability to dog bite claims. Among them:
Shop around. Every insurer has different criteria, so getting quotes from a number of different companies can help dog owners find coverage. An insurance broker who is knowledgeable about various insurers’ policies can help with the search. Larger insurers may be more accommodating than smaller ones. For example: State Farm, the largest homeowners insurance company, says it does not discriminate by breed but does require dog owners to answer questions about their animals’ history and behavior.
Spay and neuter. Sexually intact dogs are more likely to bite than spayed or neutered animals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mind your kids. Don’t leave infants or young children alone with any dog, the CDC advises. Teach children not to approach unfamiliar dogs and to remain still if approached by dogs they don’t know, or to roll up into a ball and stay motionless if knocked down by a dog. (If an unfamiliar dog is leashed and with its owner, make sure your child asks the owner first if the dog is friendly and if it’s okay to approach. Your child should know to let the dog sniff first before petting.) Kids should be taught not to disturb dogs that are eating, sleeping or tending puppies. Most dog bites occur “during everyday activities and while interacting with familiar dogs,” according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, so be vigilant about how your child behaves with dogs. Don’t let a child or anyone else tease or threaten a dog.
Don’t encourage aggression. Wrestling or even tug-of-war can trigger aggressive behavior in your pet. Dogs that have already demonstrated such behavior (lunging, biting) “are inappropriate in households with children,” the CDC notes. Yes, such dogs can be trained, but the risk to your kids is too high.
Socialize and train your dog. The CDC recommends teaching all dogs “submissive behaviors,” such as rolling over to expose their belly and giving up food without growling. Training can help with these behaviors and others that can make dog ownership easier. Shelters and pet stores are two places to look for low-cost training. Use a leash in public so you can control your dog, the AVMA advises.
Dog bites are no joke. They send some 800,000 Americans every year to emergency rooms and other medical providers for treatment, according to the AVMA. Half of those victims are children, since kids are much more likely to be seriously injured if bit. (I was going to include a photo of what a dog bite did to a young girl’s arm, but decided it was just too graphic.) Senior citizens are the next most common victims.
So do the right thing. Your dog–and your neighbors–are counting on you to be a responsible owner.
Dear Liz: My husband and I are in the process of refinancing our mortgage. I just received my credit report in the mail, and my score was 724. The report indicated that a delinquency resulted in my less-than-stellar score. When I went to the credit bureau site to see where the problem was, I saw that I had a $34 charge on a Visa last year. I rarely use that card, so I did not realize that I had a balance. As a result, I had a delinquent balance for five months last year. I am sick about this, as I always pay my bills on time. To think that my credit score was affected by something so insignificant is really bumming me out. Is there anything I can do to fix this?
Answer: You can try, but creditors are often reluctant to delete true negative information from your credit files. That’s why it’s so important to monitor all of your credit accounts, and to consider signing up for automatic payments so that this doesn’t happen again.
You should know that your mortgage lender won’t look at just one credit score when evaluating your application. Typically, mortgage lenders would request FICO credit scores from each of the three bureaus for both you and your husband, then use the lower of the two middle scores to determine your rate. Even if 724 did turn out to be the lowest of the six scores, you should still get a decent rate, since that’s considered a good score.
Dear Liz: I read your response with interest regarding the two sons in their 60s who were pressuring their parents into taking a reverse mortgage, according to a neighbor who wrote to you about the situation. You may be correct that the sons are trying to get an early inheritance, but you may also be very wrong. The sons may feel well off enough that they don’t need an inheritance and that the money would be better spent by the parents to enjoy their remaining years.
As a reverse mortgage loan officer, I’ve had seniors who are not cash-poor and house-rich go on extended vacations, purchase income properties, buy long-term healthcare policies and fund a research and development project for an invention, to name a few uses. I even know someone who bought a Ferrari, which had been a lifelong desire.
Reverse mortgages are no longer considered to be a loan of last resort. They are, in fact, a source of tax-free cash used in a variety of ways such as preserving and prolonging taxable cash assets, and for seniors who don’t need cash to live on, they may be used by their financial planners for arbitrage purposes.
By the way, I did like your reference to elder care attorneys. Many seniors think it’s a waste of time or way too expensive, but I frequently refer my clients to them as well. They are almost always able to justify the expense in the savings they produce for their clients.
Answer: While there can be many reasonable uses of reverse mortgages, remember that the parents in this case are in their 90s. This may not be a time in their lives when they’re longing for adventure travel, hot cars and investment real estate. It’s certainly not a time in life when they could buy affordable long-term care policies.
There could, however, be another explanation, as the following reader outlines:
Dear Liz: I just read your column about the neighbor’s concern that an elderly couple was being pressured by their sons to get a reverse mortgage. I am glad you mentioned the possibility of fraud by the sons. The elderly are vulnerable and need advocates.
The concerned writer needs to consider another option. Maybe the elderly couple is not doing as well financially as they portray. I was once a concerned neighbor to an elderly widow. As a ploy to remain independent, she was not always upfront about how well (or not well) she was doing. In her case it was health issues that she would hide or downplay (money was not an issue). Though all the neighbors cared and looked out for her, we did not have all the facts that the family had and the family was not aware of all we knew. The concerned neighbor should reach out to the sons. Hopefully the sons are looking out for their parents’ best interests and the neighbor can assist the sons in that common goal.
Answer: Your neighborhood is to be commended for trying to help an elderly person in poor health. Intervening in a financial matter, however, could be fraught with peril and lead to an ugly confrontation with the sons. That’s why directing the parents to an elder law attorney — one affiliated with the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys at http://www.naela.org — probably would be a better course. The attorney could better protect the parents against potential financial abuse while assessing whether they might need more help than they’re letting on.
Dear Liz: My husband and I are recovering from a job loss four years ago. We used up all our savings and home equity. My husband is now employed, but we are struggling to keep ahead even with a salary of about $100,000. I was a stay-at-home mom for the first 10 years of our kids’ lives and now I work two part-time jobs to help with our expenses. We are trying to follow the 50/30/20 budget plan you recommend, but can’t seem to get our “must haves” — which are supposed to be no more than 50% of our after-tax income — down from 80% to 90%. Most of the rest goes for “wants,” such as the kids’ dance classes and soccer teams and for cellphones. We’re not saving anything although we’re trying to whittle down our credit card debt. I have tried several times to refinance our first and second mortgages and home equity line of credit but have found we don’t qualify because too much is owed on our modest three-bedroom, one-bath house, which has gone down significantly in value. We also have two car loans that are worth more than the cars, and the insurance is killing us. Amazingly enough, we have never been late on a payment. We just can’t get ahead. Did I mention that both kids need braces?
Answer: You clearly can’t afford your life, and things will only get worse if you don’t get your spending in line with your income.
Your first step should be to consult with a HUD-approved housing counselor, who can advise you of your mortgage options. You can get referrals from http://www.hud.gov. If your first mortgage is held by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, you may be able to refinance it through the federal government’s Home Affordable Refinance Program. Recent changes in the program have helped more underwater homeowners refinance. Even if you’ve been turned down by one lender, you can try with another. One way to search for HARP quotes is through Zillow’s online mortgage quote service at http://www.zillow.com/mortgage-rates/.
The Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration also have streamlined refinancing programs for their underwater loans.
Government programs usually define an “affordable” payment as one that’s 31% or less of your gross income, but that may be too high for many families to comfortably handle. Ideally, your housing costs — including mortgage, property taxes and insurance — would consume no more than about 25% of your gross (pre-tax) income.
If you exhaust your options and can’t get your mortgage payments down to an affordable level, you should consider a short sale of your home. Moving is terribly disruptive and expensive but it’s better than letting a house sink your finances.
Then take a look at your cars. The average annual cost of owning a car is $8,946, according to AAA. You can make the argument that one car is a necessity, but having two is typically more of a convenience than a “must have.” Getting rid of one could dramatically lower your insurance and transportation costs.
Since you’re underwater on both, you’ll need to look at which is cheapest to operate and which is closest to being paid off. If they’re the same, then your choice is easier — you can work toward paying that car off faster so you can sell it. Otherwise, you’ll have to weigh which loan to target first.
Another way to get your budget balanced is to make more money. That may mean asking for more hours at your jobs or looking for opportunities that pay better.
Dear Liz: The certificate of deposit I owned in my Roth IRA recently matured. I’ve put the money into a Roth passbook account until I can figure out what to do with it. I’m a public school teacher and have a 457 deferred compensation plan to which I contribute monthly. I am 57 and will need to work until I am at least 65. What should I do with the money in my Roth?
Answer: As a public school teacher, you probably have a defined benefit pension that will give you a guaranteed monthly check for life once you retire. Depending on how long you’ve taught and where, this pension could cover a substantial portion of your living expenses.
The guaranteed nature of this pension means that you may be able to take more risk with your other investments. That would mean your Roth could be invested in stock mutual funds or exchange-traded funds that offer potential for growth. CDs and other “safe” investments can’t offer that — in fact, your money loses purchasing power since you’re not earning enough interest to even offset inflation.
Since you’re so close to retirement, you should invest a few hundred dollars in a session with a fee-only financial planner who can review your situation and offer personalized advice.
Today is my mother’s birthday. She would have been 82.
Except that she died twenty years ago of colon cancer. She loved life and she should have had more of it.
I write about this for two reasons. First, to enlist you in my effort to get everybody screened. Colonoscopies aren’t fun, but they can save your life. Catch it early, and colon cancer is a non-issue. Procrastinate, and it can kill you. The AMA recommends you get your first colonoscopy at 50, or 40 if you have a family history of the disease. You’re not off the hook if you’re younger: start bugging your parents, your aunts and uncles, your older siblings to schedule their screenings. A little nagging can save a life.
The second is to remind you to do the things you love, go the places you want to go, take the chances you’re afraid to take. Don’t put this stuff off indefinitely. Although plenty of people are live-for-today grasshoppers, I suspect more than a few of you are careful ants, focused diligently on the future.
I once heard from a man who wanted to take his 11-year-old on a trip to Europe. But he also felt he should start paying down his mortgage, as he was on track with his retirement savings and that seemed to be the next logical goal. Go, I told him, while she still wants to spend time with you. She’ll be off on her own soon enough, and the mortgage will still be there for you to tackle.
Delayed gratification is good and necessary if you want a sound financial foundation–and if you want to retire someday. But also don’t forget that tomorrow is not guaranteed. Think about what you would regret not doing, not saying, not being if today were your last day. It may not be, probably won’t be, but your life will be richer for living as if it might.