My latest MSN column (click HERE to read it) takes a deep dive into recent reports that nearly half of U.S. households are either low income or poor. The Census has been experimenting with new ways to measure poverty, but it’s questionable whether half of us are really struggling.
Still, there’s no question that a lot of people have a hard time making ends meet. Median incomes have dropped, unemployment has soared and tighter credit standards make it harder to get the loans that in the past papered over the fact that so many people’s living standards had dropped.
That’s depressing. But most people have at least some control over their economic fate. There’s a big difference between “broke” and “poor,” as I wrote in a column several years ago:
“Broke” is temporary. It’s running out of money before you run out of month…”Poor” is something else. It’s hunger, and clothes that don’t fit, and homes that are uncomfortable and unsafe. It’s not having enough or even the prospect of having enough.
“Broke” is fairly common. “Poor” is less so…although other Census figures show that nearly one in four households has had a recent spell of poverty. The good news is that entrenched poverty, the kind that lasts for years, is truly uncommon–only about two out of 100 households spent years below the poverty level.
In any case, it’s important to keep the difference between “broke” and “poor” in mind if you’re financially struggling. “Broke” means you can do something about your situation–and I hope you do.
Most debts have a statute of limitations, which means the creditor isn’t supposed to sue the borrower in court to collect the debt after a certain number of years. The statute of limitations varies by the state and the type of debt, typically ranging from two to 15 years.
Here’s the thing: even a small, partial payment on an old debt can revive the statute of limitations. That can allow the creditor to sue you and get a wage garnishment order so it can take money right out of your paycheck.
If it were the original creditor suing you, you might resign yourself to the situation. But often the company filing the lawsuit is not the original creditor. Many times, the company that originally loaned you the money has long since written off the account, gotten a tax break for bad debt and sold the account to a collection agency. So the entity suing you may be a collection agency which purchased your debt for 2 or 3 cents on the dollar–or even less.
The Wall Street Journal has done some good stories lately on the debt-buying industry, and has one today about the FTC’s settlement with Asset Acceptance, one of the largest debt buyers. The FTC alleges people were coerced into paying debts beyond the statutes of limitations. In some cases, the FTC contended, Asset Acceptance reported details of the out-of-statute debts to the credit bureaus in violation of federal credit reporting laws.
Most of us feel a moral obligation to pay what we owe. If bad decisions or bad circumstances have left you with unpaid bills, though, you could be stepping on a land mine if you make a partial payment on old debts. Before you pay, you should understand whether the debts are within the statute of limitations. If they’re not, and you still want to pay, consider negotiating a lump-sum settlement that includes the collector’s promise not to resell any portion of the debt. This is tricky business, though, and you should educate yourself thoroughly before you make the attempt. DebtCollectionAnswers.com, a site run by credit expert Gerri Detweiler, is a good place to start.
Dear Liz: We have a second home close to a lake that we bought in 2002 for $370,000. It could have sold for $1 million at the peak of the market but is now worth about $800,000. We owe $100,000 on a mortgage with four years left until it’s paid off, but the payments are a hardship and barely manageable. I don’t expect prices in the area to improve much in the next several years and they may decline more. Since I could sell the house now and get back all the money I ever put into it, I figure that every dollar I pay on it from now on is a dollar of profit burned. Selling the house is not an option, though, as my wife is adamant about keeping it. We are 10 years from retirement and have a kid to put through college. Our income is just under $100,000, we have no other debts and our primary home is paid off. Should we refinance the remaining balance to a 30-year loan, or just grin and bear it until the payoff in a few more years?
Answer: If you’re on track saving for retirement and your child’s college education, then the smart thing would be to gut it out and get the property paid off. You’re so close to the end of this loan that the majority of your payments go toward principal. Refinancing might lower your payments, but would dramatically increase the amount of interest you’d pay over time.
If you’re stinting your savings, though, the math gets more complicated. You could view the paid-off vacation home as an asset you could tap later for retirement expenses or college. In that case, getting it paid off on the current schedule would make sense. If selling or borrowing against the home in the future isn’t an option, though, then lowering your payments so you can save for your other goals starts to make some sense.
If that’s the option you choose, consider a 15-year loan rather than a 30-year loan. The shorter loan will still dramatically reduce your payment but you’ll pay about 60% less interest over time.
Dear Liz: You’ve written about the 50/30/20 budget structure that people should strive to achieve. As you said, it’s a difficult feat. But here’s my question: How does one even come close when you live in a major metropolitan area? In my particular case, home values in my area have remained intact in many places and demand for apartments is so high that vacancy rates are the lowest in the nation. To get into a relatively safe neighborhood with access to public transit, rent is over $1,000 with a roommate or two. Finding that 50/30/20 balance seems impossible for people who live here and we can’t all just relocate.
Answer: If you live in a high-cost area but don’t have a high income, you’ll need to get creative if you want to keep your “must have” expenses—shelter, food, transportation, child care, minimum loan payments and insurance—under 50% of your after-tax income.
Many people in high-cost areas devote 40% or more of their incomes to shelter costs, which makes it all but impossible to have enough money left over for their “wants” (clothes, vacations, gifts and other non-necessities that should consumer 30% of their after-tax incomes savings, according to the 50/30/20 plan) or savings and debt repayment (which should consume 20% of your after-tax income under the plan). The result is a perpetually unbalanced budget, which often leads to more debt and lots of anxiety.
But people have come up with various solutions to better balance their budgets. Blogger Donna Freedman was an apartment manager for several years, which helped lower her shelter costs. Fred Ecks, who retired in his 40s, lived on a boat to reduce his rent in notoriously high-cost San Francisco. Other people have exchanged their services for free or reduced rent—by babysitting or serving as a companion to an elderly person.
If you can’t find a solution that lowers your housing costs, you have two options: continue to live with a lopsided budget, and accept that you may never be able to achieve a balanced financial life, or move to a place where you can make the math work.
Dear Liz: I have a high-interest car loan (more than 10%) and just landed a part-time job to add to my full-time cash flow. I want to pay the car off as quickly as possible, but I have read and been told that paying a loan off early doesn’t help scores as much as paying the duration of the loan. Is there truth to this? It seems foolish, though, since won’t I be paying more interest?
Answer: The primary concern with paying off a loan is that the lender may stop reporting the account to the credit bureaus. Although there are limits to how long most negative information can stay on a credit report, there are no limits to how long good information can or must be reported.
Still, most lenders continue to report accounts that have been paid off for several years. If you can pay off a high-rate loan, you probably should, and trust that you’ll get “credit” for your on-time payments for years to come.
Dear Liz: What recourse would my 21-year-old nephew have if his mother embezzled his college fund? The fund was set up by his parents when he was a child.
Answer: If your nephew wants to try to sue his mother, or file a criminal complaint against her, he should talk to an attorney about his options. Money that’s placed in a trust or custodial account for a child’s benefit is no longer the parent’s to take, although too many parents don’t understand this and grab at an easy source of funds when money gets tight.
In the more likely case that he doesn’t want to take formal action against his mother, he could simply ask her to return the money she took. His chances of success may not be great — people who steal from their kids may not be eager to make amends — but he likely stands no chance if he doesn’t ask.
Dear Liz: I am having a terrible time with my finances. I am a single woman with no kids, and I work as a teacher at a charter school making $40,000 a year. I am working with a debt management program to pay off my credit cards. But I am constantly late in paying my bills and often bounce checks, which costs me money I don’t have to cover the fees. I can’t even save. I’m actively seeking another job or an additional part-time job, but no luck so far. I am in default on my student loans (they want me to pay $700 a month, but I can’t). I am very depressed and am so tired of this. I have holes in my tennis shoes and I can’t afford new ones. I am on a strict budget, I use coupons, don’t go out much anymore (which makes me more depressed because I am cooped up all the time). I have house problems that I need to deal with but can’t. I hate living like this. I honestly don’t know what to do. Please help.
Answer: The first thing you need to do is opt out of your bank’s bounced-check protection program. You may think you need to borrow money this way to make ends meet, but as you’ve discovered, it’s driving you further into the hole.
Next, rethink your participation in the debt management program. It was honorable of you to try to avoid bankruptcy, but it’s pretty clear you can’t afford to continue with this program if doing so leaves you in default on your student loan obligations. Credit card debts can be erased in Bankruptcy Court; student loan debt can almost never be wiped out that way.
If you have federal student loans, you may be able to qualify for the income-based repayment program, which caps your payment at a reasonable amount and erases any remaining balance after 10 years in a public service job (such as teaching in the public school system). Otherwise, the balance is erased after 25 years of payments. If you have private loans, you have far fewer options for repayment, but wiping out the credit card debt would free up more money to pay these loans back. Talk to your lenders to see what options you may have.
Another factor to consider is how much you’re spending on housing. If you own a home, the mortgage and related home-owning costs may simply be too much for you on your current income. Getting rid of the house in a short sale, or even letting it go into foreclosure, may be a far better option than continuing to cling to a home you can’t afford.
Bankruptcy, short sales and foreclosures are all drastic options. But some financial problems are so great that a drastic solution is the only reasonable choice if you ever want to get back on your financial feet.
Dear Liz: I have an 18-year-old daughter who wants to attend a private, out-of-state school. I don’t have any money saved for her education and do not make enough to cover the cost of this college. What are my options? She’s an A student and is planning to go to medical school.
Answer: You need to have the conversation you probably should have initiated a few years ago, before she started the college application process. She must understand that what she wants and what you can afford to provide for her may be two very different things.
Start by applying for financial aid at the colleges that have accepted her (let’s hope she applied to more than one). The “estimated family contribution” calculator at FinAid.org can give you a rough idea of what you’ll be expected to pay, but the actual package you’re offered can vary somewhat depending on how much the school wants your daughter to attend. You may want to invest in some books to help you understand the process, such as the Princeton Review’s “Paying for College Without Going Broke, 2012 Edition” and education expert Lynn O’Shaughnessy’s workbook, “Shrinking the Cost of College,” available at thecollegesolution.com.
Once you have the financial aid offers you can see which schools may be within your grasp and which are too expensive. Some schools encourage students and their parents to borrow heavily to attend, but that can lead to financial disaster — particularly since she has so many years of schooling ahead. Your daughter should try to limit her borrowing for her undergraduate education to what’s available through the federal student loan program (typically $33,000, total) and avoid private student loans, which have fewer consumer protections.
You as a parent can borrow through the federal PLUS program, but it’s easy to go overboard. The PLUS program will lend you up to the full cost of your daughter’s education, but the loan payments could be overwhelming and could prevent you from retiring. Student loan debt is almost impossible to discharge in bankruptcy, so you should be cautious about taking it on.
Your daughter should be able to cobble together an affordable education if she’s flexible about where she gets her undergraduate degree. Beyond that, she should know that the military and the National Health Service Corps pay for medical school in exchange for several years of service.
Dear Liz: My wife and I have opened about 20 credit cards, including retail cards, over the past 12 years or so. We have no balances on any of these accounts. We recently bought a home and don’t plan to apply for any new loans in the near future. Should we close all these accounts and take the potential credit hit now, in order to have a much cleaner credit sheet after a few years?
Answer: One of the many persistent myths about credit is that having too many cards is bad for your credit scores. In reality, the leading credit scoring formula, the FICO, doesn’t punish you for having “too much” available credit. You can, however, hurt your credit scores by closing accounts.
If you’re not going to be in the market for a new loan any time soon, you can certainly close a few retail cards if you no longer use them and don’t want the hassle of keeping track of those accounts. But you’ll probably want to keep open your major credit card accounts (Visa, MasterCard, Discover, American Express) unless there’s a compelling reason to close them, such as an annual fee you don’t want to pay.