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Opt out of credit card offers

May 29, 2013 | | Comments (4)

Dear Liz: I am receiving many unsolicited credit card offers in the mail and am worried about identity theft. Do you know of a phone number or Web address whereby I can opt out of these offers?

Answer: You can call 1-888-5OPTOUT or visit www.optoutprescreen.com to remove your name from marketing lists that the three credit bureaus sell to credit card issuers. Opting out won’t keep every card solicitation out of your mailbox, but it should decrease substantially the number of offers you receive. You can opt out for five years or permanently, but you need to be prepared to give your Social Security number, since that’s one of the key ways the bureaus identify you in their records.

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GondolaIt’s time to plan some summer fun, and yesterday’s “Smarter Travel” Tweetchat with Ally Bank featured some great tips. (You can check out the conversation using #allymoneychat on Twitter.)

Here are some ideas to cut your costs:

Travel outside the box. Your options aren’t just “fly or drive”? Donna Freedman recommends checking out the Megabus. “I went from Philly to NYC for $1.50. Could make day trips really cheap.” She also traveled on the Megabus in the United Kingdom for a fraction of what the train fare would have cost. Speaking of trains, overnight trips on Amtrak can be pretty expensive, but we’ve scored free roomettes (double-bunk sleeper) and bedrooms on overnight trips up and down the West Coast using Starwood points that we dumped into Amtrak’s Guest Rewards program.

Cut hotel costs. Once again, your choices aren’t just “hotel or bunk with friends”? Check out Airbnb or VRBO or consider a house swap.

Book strategically. The best day to book airfares is often Tuesday, while the cheapest day to fly is usually Wednesday. But Bing’s price predictor can help you figure out whether to snap up a fare or wait a little longer. (Just search for an airfare, and the predictor will give you the likelihood the current fare will increase or drop.) Join frequent flyer programs and sign up for email newsletters so you can hear about special sales. Kiplinger has more here in its “21 secrets to save on travel.”

Rescue orphaned miles. Got points in a travel program you no longer use? You may be able to shift them to a loyalty program you do use. Check out Webflyer.com’s Mileage Converter to explore the possibilities. Speaking of points:

Don’t settle for expensive. Last-minute trips don’t have to be budget-busters. Airlines may release more seats a few days prior to the flight so that you can book them with frequent flyer miles. Priceline and Hotwire are great places to bid for cheap flights, rooms and cars.

Re-shop your reservations. Change fees make rebooking airfares tough on most carriers, but you can typically change hotel and car rental reservations without penalty. I usually book a few months in advance, then check three weeks out and again a week out to see if hotel or car rates have fallen.

Plan cheap fun. Last time we visited Hawaii we bought an Entertainment book for the islands before we left. The $10 we spent for the book was offset with our first museum visit; the coupons for other activities and restaurants were a bonus. Donna suggests talking to locals and doing searches for “free/cheap things to doyou’re your destination. “Maybe something just opened & isn’t on the general radar yet,” she noted.

Categories : Liz's Blog, Saving Money
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How much cash should you keep on hand?

May 20, 2013 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: A few years ago I finished paying off my debt and now am in the very low-risk credit category. I have savings equal to about three months’ worth of bills and am working to get that to six months’ worth. I’m wondering, though, about an emergency that may require me to pay in cash (such as a major power outage that disables debit or credit card systems, or the more likely event that I forget the ATM or credit card at home). How much cash should a person have on hand? Is there a magic number?

Answer: There’s no magic number. You’ll have to weigh the likelihood you’ll need the green, and the consequences of not having it when you need it, against the risk of loss or theft.

Many people find it’s a good idea to tuck a spare $20 into their wallet for emergencies, and perhaps another $20 in their cars if they’re in the habit of forgetting their wallets or their plastic.

Cash for a disaster is another matter. Power could go out for a week or more, or you may need to evacuate and pay for transportation and shelter at a time when card processing systems are disabled. A few hundred bucks in cash probably would be the minimum prudent reserve you’d want to keep in a secure place in your home. You may decide that you need more.

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Dear Liz: Your comments about the benefits of delaying Social Security misled readers. While a cost-of-living increase was standard for many years, it no longer is. You might want to check back over the last 10 years to get details. In addition, a reader might interpret your points about the increased benefit at full retirement age versus the benefit amount at 62 as a promise for the future. Factors such as health and family longevity are also involved. Depending solely on one’s Social Security check for living expenses will most likely bring derisive laughs for those who unfortunately have to do just that.

Answer: Your comments are a good example of why it’s important to get a second opinion on Social Security benefits, because what we think we know about the program may not be true.

One of the best reasons for delaying Social Security is to claim a bigger benefit down the road, a benefit that has nothing to do with cost-of-living increases. “Retirement benefits increase by 6 2/3% each full year an individual waits between age 62 and 65,” said Patricia Raymond, regional communications director for the Social Security Administration. “For each additional year an individual delays benefits from age 65 until full retirement age, the benefit increases 5%.”

The full retirement age is now 66 and will increase to 67. Even if Social Security is restructured sometime in the future, it’s highly unlikely that the system would stop rewarding people for delaying retirement or that cost-of-living increases would be discontinued (although they may be reduced).

By the way, there have been only two years in the last 10 when there was no cost-of-living increase, as you can see at http://www.ssa.gov/cola/automatic-cola.htm. Increases have ranged from 1.7% this year to 5.8% in 2009. The average for the last decade was 2.56%. Whether these increases truly keep up with inflation is questionable, especially with increasing Medicare costs, but to say cost-of-living adjustments are no longer “standard” simply isn’t true.

Trying to decide when to take Social Security based on your current health or your family history of longevity is tricky, at best. Taking Social Security early might turn out to be a good decision if you die relatively early, or it could be a big mistake if you live longer than expected or you have a surviving spouse who may depend on your benefit. (Starting your retirement early would reduce not only your check but also the check a survivor would receive.)

The AARP website has a Social Security calculator that can help you understand the ramifications.

Obviously, some people have little choice but to apply for Social Security as soon as they’re eligible because they need the money. But delaying Social Security for a bigger benefit can be seen as a kind of longevity insurance for those who can afford to do so. Even people in poor health or who lack a family history of longevity might want to hedge against the possibility of outliving other assets, either for themselves or their spouses.

Ideally, no one would rely solely on Social Security benefits, but unfortunately many do. Social Security constitutes 90% or more of income for nearly half of single retirees and more than 1 in 5 married couples. For most people who receive Social Security, the checks represent half or more of their income. So it makes sense to learn how to maximize your benefits using information from reliable sources. In addition to the Social Security and AARP websites, you can learn more from the excellent primer “Social Security for Dummies” by Jonathan Peterson.

Categories : Q&A, Retirement
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Want to get away this summer?

May 20, 2013 | | Comments Comments Off

GondolaPlease join me on Twitter tomorrow (Tuesday) at 2 p.m. Eastern/11 a.m. Pacific when we’ll be discussing “Smart Planning for Summer Travel.” Among the topics:

  • How to take advantage of dropping airfares
  • How to plan financially for travel and take advantage of discounts
  • Good apps and Web sites to use
  • When to consider home swaps or rentals instead of a hotel
  • How to handle travel setbacks and emergencies

And much, much more.

You can RSVP at http://bit.ly/15GUesH and check out the Twitter feed @AllyBank for more details. On Tuesday, join us at http://tweetchat.com/room/allymoneychat to follow us
during the chat.

Categories : Liz's Blog, Saving Money
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Dear Liz: When I was 62, I started Social Security and I’m currently saving half of my monthly benefit after taxes (about $750). My decision to take my benefits early was influenced by a financial columnist who suggested that if I started at 62 and invested half or more of it until I reached full retirement age, the lower early benefits would be matched by the investment returns by the time I’m 85. Is this advice still reasonable?

Answer: In today’s investing environment, it’s hard to match the guaranteed annual return you get from delaying Social Security benefits. You may do better investing in the stock market, but there isn’t an investment that can guarantee 6% returns right now, which is the approximate amount Social Security benefits increase annually between the earliest age you can take benefits (62) and your full retirement age (currently 66). The higher benefit you get by waiting is then increased by inflation adjustments each year, making it an even harder target to beat.

That’s not to say it can’t be done. In your case, it’s too late for second thoughts anyway. But most people are better off waiting, if they can afford to do so.

There are other good reasons to delay, even if you’re an investing genius. If you’re married, your spouse would be eligible for a survivor’s benefit should you die first. That benefit is equal to the Social Security check you’ve been getting. A bigger check could make it easier for him or her to make ends meet down the road.

Spouses who wait until full retirement age also have the option of taking spousal benefits first, and then switching to their own benefits later, after those benefits have had a few more years to grow. When you take benefits early, you lose the option to switch.

Even if you’re not married, you can look at Social Security as a form of longevity insurance. A larger benefit could be a big help if you live a long time and spend down your other assets.

Hopefully you understood all this before you put your retirement plan into motion. If you didn’t, then your situation could serve as a cautionary tale for anyone who’s trying to make decisions about retirement based solely on his or her own research. It’s vitally important to get a second opinion from a fee-only comprehensive financial planner. Even the most ardent do-it-yourselfer can miss important nuances when it comes to retirement, and those nuances can have a dramatic effect on your future quality of life.

Categories : Q&A, Retirement
Comments (7)

High, safe returns don’t exist

May 13, 2013 | | Comments (1)

Dear Liz: I’m getting about $500,000 from the sale of my business this year and next year will be getting an additional $1 million. What’s the best way to invest the money so I can make $150,000 to $200,000 a year? I am 55 years old and will have no other income than what I can earn with this money.

Answer: You probably know that “guaranteed” or “safe” returns are very low right now. If you’re getting much more than 1% annually, you’re having to take some risk of loss. The higher the potential returns, the greater the risk.

So even if you could find an investment that promised to return 10% to 13% a year, there are no guarantees such returns would last, plus you would be at risk of losing some or all of your investment. A down draft in the market or an extended vacancy in your real estate holdings could cause you to dig into your principal.

That’s why financial planners typically advise their clients not to expect to take more than 4% a year or so out of their portfolios if they expect those portfolios to last. If you try to take much more out or invest aggressively to earn more, you run a substantial risk of running out of money before you run out of breath.

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Dear Liz: I’m wondering how long we really need to keep bank statements, since banks now offer paperless options. My son doesn’t even open the statements anymore; he just views his account information online.

Answer: There’s nothing magical about paper bank statements. If your son doesn’t open them, he probably shouldn’t even get them. He can ask his bank to switch him to its paperless option and save some trees.

The IRS accepts electronic documents, and banks keep account records at least six years. Your highest risk for an audit is the three years after a tax return is filed, so you should be able to download statements if you need them in an audit. There might be fees involved to get these statements, however, so you’ll have to weigh the potential cost against the hassle of storing all that paper. Some people get the paper statements, scan them and shred the originals; others download the statements as they go and store them electronically.

If you don’t need bank records for tax purposes, there’s even less reason for getting paper statements. Eschewing them can reduce bank fees and will certainly save a few trees.

Categories : Banking, Q&A, The Basics
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Get 50% off some great money books!

May 10, 2013 | | Comments Comments Off

DWYD cover2013FT 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:

You can check out the conversation on Twitter using hashtag #FTPersonalFinance or visit our Tweetchat room.

Categories : Liz's Blog
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Experian to offer FICOs to consumers again

May 09, 2013 | | Comments Comments Off

YCS4 coverExperian 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.”

“This is great news for consumers,” said credit scoring expert John Ulzheimer, the president of consumer education for SmartCredit.com who tipped me off to this important development.
After withdrawing from its partnership with MyFico.com, Experian continued to sell credit scores to consumers–but they weren’t the same scores lenders typically used. One score Experian sells, the PLUS score, isn’t used by lenders, while the VantageScore is used by about 10% of lenders. FICOs, on the other hand, are the leading score, so being able to get them again from Experian is a real boon.

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