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Dear Liz: My husband and I have been putting 5% and 6%, respectively, into our 401(k) accounts to get our full company matches. We’re also maxing out our Roth IRAs.

The CPA who does our taxes recommended that we put more money into our 401(k)s even if that would mean putting less into our Roth IRAs. We’re also expecting our first child, and our CPA said he doesn’t like 529 plans.

What’s your opinion on us increasing our 401(k)s by the amount we’d intended to put into a 529, while still maxing out our Roths, and then using our Roth contributions (not earnings) to pay for our child’s college (assuming he goes on to higher education)?

Our CPA liked that idea, but I can’t find anything online that says anyone else is doing things this way. I can’t help but wonder if there’s a catch.

Answer: Other people are indeed doing this, and there’s a big catch: You’d be using money for college that may do you a lot more good in retirement.

Contributions to Roth IRAs are, as you know, not tax deductible, but you can withdraw your contributions at any time without paying taxes or penalties. In retirement, your gains can be withdrawn tax free. Having money in tax-free as well as taxable and tax-deferred accounts gives you greater ability to control your tax bill in retirement.

Also, unlike other retirement accounts, you’re not required to start distributions after age 70 1/2. If you don’t need the money, you can continue to let it grow tax free and leave the whole thing to your heirs, if you want.

That’s a lot of flexibility to give up, and sucking out your contributions early will stunt how much more the accounts can grow.

You’d also miss out on the chance to let future returns help increase your college fund.

Let’s say you contribute $11,000 a year to your Roths ($5,500 each, the current limit). If you withdraw all your contributions after 18 years, you’d have $198,000 (any investment gains would stay in the account to avoid early-withdrawal fees).

Impressive, yes, but if you’d invested that money instead in a 529 and got 6% average annual returns, you could have $339,000. At 8%, the total is $411,000. That may be far more than you need — or it may not be, if you have more than one child or want to help with graduate school. With elite colleges costing $60,000 a year now and likely much more in the future, you may want all the growth you can get.

You didn’t say why your CPA doesn’t like 529s, but they’re a pretty good way for most families to save for college. Withdrawals are tax free when used for higher education and there is a huge array of plans to choose from, since every state except Wyoming offers at least one of these programs and most have multiple investment options.

Clearly, this is complicated, and you probably should run it past a certified financial planner or a CPA who has the personal financial specialist designation. Your CPA may be a great guy, but unless he’s had training in financial planning, he may not be a great choice for comprehensive financial advice.

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Dear Liz: In a recent column, you noted that someone who chooses to obtain Social Security at age 62 on her own account is unable to switch to her spouse’s account at age 66. Is this true for a spouse who is older than the husband? My husband is one year younger than me. If I chose to start Social Security at age 62 on my own benefits, would I be able to switch to his when he retires at age 66 (and I would be age 67 at the time)?

Answer: You’ve actually got it a bit backward. Someone who waits until her full retirement age to apply for Social Security has the choice of starting with a spousal benefit (typically half of what the spouse gets) and then switching to her own benefit later, usually at age 70 when it’s reached its maximum level.

This is often a recommended strategy with two high earners, since the one receiving spousal benefits can “graduate” to her own, higher benefit later. If the spouse receiving spousal benefits was a lower earner, her benefit might not be as big as her spousal benefit at age 70, so there would be no reason to switch.

If you start spousal benefits before your own full retirement age, however, you’re locked in. You can’t let your own benefit grow and switch to it later.

For a program meant to benefit ordinary Americans, Social Security can be mind-numbingly complex. Fortunately, you can find good calculators at the AARP and T. Rowe Price websites to help you sort through your options.

Categories : Q&A, Retirement
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Monday’s need-to-know money news

Jun 10, 2013 | | Comments Comments Off

Flying Piggy BankHow to get the most out of your summer vacation, protecting yourself from medical identity theft, correcting financial myths and how to start saving for retirement.

3 Ways to Maximize Your Frequent Flier Miles This Summer

While holiday blackouts can make redeeming frequent flier miles difficult during the summer, there are still good deals to be had if you know where to look.

How to Protect Yourself from Fraud at the Hospital

Identity thieves are targeting victims at their most vulnerable. Find out what you can do to protect yourself.

Want More Time Off? Some Employers Let You Buy It

A novel approach to managing vacation time could allow you to purchase a day off or sell time you’re not going to use.

Financial Advisers Correct Common Personal Finance Myths

Meet the five common personal finance myths and how to avoid them.

How To Start Saving For Retirement

The good news is that it’s not too late. The bad news is that it will be if you wait any longer.

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Friday’s need-to-know money news

Jun 07, 2013 | | Comments Comments Off

House With Tree DamageThe inconvenient costs of convenience checks, the effects of the sequester on the unemployed, how to save money by purchasing an energy efficient home, how to save your financial sanity when your kids move back home and why hurricane season means it’s time to check your auto insurance coverage.

The True Costs of Credit Card Convenience Checks

The checks sent by your credit card company under the guise of convenience could lead to some very inconvenient fees.

Why the Unemployed Are Seeing Smaller Checks

The effects of sequestration mean 11% to 22% cuts for unemployment checks.

Bill Would Sweeten Loans for Energy-Efficient Homes

Purchasing an energy-efficient home could land you a larger mortgage and a lower interest rate under a Senate bill introduced with broad real estate industry support.

How to Set Money Ground Rules For A Boomerang Kid

With over 13% of parents having a grown child living at home, it’s important to set financial ground rules in order to keep the peace.

Hurricane season: Make sure your car is covered

Hurricanes damage hundreds of thousands of cars, but insurer rules prevent last-minute buying of coverage. Now is the time to review your policy.

 

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Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Jun 06, 2013 | | Comments Comments Off

YCS4 coverGood credit, stolen credit and ways to save on travel to the vacation home you should have purchased when mortgage rates were historically low.

Five Reasons Why You Can’t Ignore Your Credit

While living debt free is a good thing, living credit free can have unforeseen and expensive consequences.

Here’s Everything We Know About The Rakuten/Buy.com Credit Card Breaches

If you’ve shopped at the online marketplace recently, you should pay very close attention to your statements.

26 Secrets to Save on Travel

Flying on a Saturday afternoon may not sound like fun, but it could save you big bucks.

Farewell 3% Mortgage Rates

Job gains and an improving economy signal the end of historically low mortgage rates.

Categories : Liz's Blog
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Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Jun 05, 2013 | | Comments Comments Off

collegeHere are some of the top money stories around the Web:

How to Pay Student Loans You Can’t Afford

With interest rates on federal Stafford Loans set to double on July 1st, Credit.com’s Gerri Detweiler breaks down the four main income-based repayment programs.

The Surprising Downside of Cutting Up Your Credit Cards

While it may curb your spending, cutting those credit cards in half could hurt your credit score.

Banks Lag on Consumer-Friendly Checking Practices

After surveying 36 of 50 of the country’s largest banks, the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Safe Checking in the Electronic Age project discovered that not a single one met all of the recommended practices.

Are You Paying the iTunes Tax?

The days of tax free internet purchases could soon be over.

Categories : Liz's Blog
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Dear Liz: My spouse has tenure at a university. Given that one of us will always be employed, should we change the way we look at the amount of money we keep in an emergency fund or our risk tolerance for investments?

Answer: Even tenured professors can get fired or laid off. Tenure was designed to protect academic freedom, but professors can lose their jobs because of serious misconduct, incompetence or economic cutbacks, such as when a department is eliminated or a whole university is closed. About 2% of tenured faculty are dismissed in a typical year, according to the National Education Assn.’s Higher Education Department.

That’s more job security than in most occupations, of course. Your spouse also may have access to a defined benefit pension, which would give him or her a guaranteed income stream in retirement. Those factors mean you reasonably can take more risk with your other investments.

As for your emergency fund, you may be fine with savings equal to three months of expenses. But consider that if your spouse were to be dismissed, he or she probably would have a tough time finding an equivalent position. If the institution starts having financial difficulties or if there is any reason to suspect that he or she could be dismissed, a fatter fund could come in handy.

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How couples can maximize Social Security

Jun 03, 2013 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: I will be 68 this summer and plan on working two more years. My wife retired in 2011 after turning 60. We would like to maximize our Social Security and are planning on having her take spousal benefits when I retire. When she turns 70, she can switch to her own benefit. How much of my benefit will she receive if she starts receiving it when she is 64 and I’m 70?

Answer: If your goal is to maximize your Social Security benefits as a couple, you should rethink having her apply before her full retirement age.

If she applies before she turns 66, she won’t have the choice of switching benefits later. The Social Security Administration will compare the benefit she has earned with her spousal benefit (basically half of your benefit, reduced by the fact that she is applying early). If her spousal benefit is larger, she will get her own benefit plus an amount of money to make up the difference between the two. What she won’t get is the option to let her benefit continue to grow so that she can switch to that larger check later. The option to switch is available only if she waits until her full retirement age to apply.

There are several good online calculators to help you compare your Social Security options, including ones at AARP and T. Rowe Price.

Categories : Q&A, Retirement
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Dear Liz: Over the last couple of years I have managed to pay off my credit cards. I know that closing those accounts will hurt my credit so I kept them open. When I checked my credit report, I found that my rating had gone down and was told that I had to actually use the credit cards and pay them off to keep my score up. I’ve been doing that over the last year or so and my credit score responded well. This past month my credit score went down again by a few points and I learned that it was because the credit card companies had rewarded my diligence by raising my credit limit. This apparently hurt my score. What’s up with this? Is there any way not to get dinged by the reporting agencies?

Answer: Higher credit limits would reduce the percentage of available credit you are using, and that should help your credit scores, rather than hurt them. So the score you’re seeing either isn’t a FICO score, which is the score used by most lenders, or you are being given questionable information about what affects your scores. Many score monitoring systems are set up to give you explanations for any change in your numbers, but those explanations might be vague or might not accurately depict what’s truly influencing your scores.

Your FICO credit scores change all the time, based on the ever-changing information in your credit reports. Variations of a few points shouldn’t be a cause of concern. Continue to use your cards lightly but regularly, paying the balances off in full each month. Over time, the variations will smooth out into higher scores.

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Catch me on CNBC today

Jun 03, 2013 | | Comments (3)

DWYD cover2013I’ll be discussing how 10 years of savings can be worth more than 30 years of savings on today’s “Closing Bell” with Kelly Evans and Scott Wapner.

Today’s 20-somethings have a unique–and easily blown–opportunity to set themselves up for their future. Because of the power of compounding, the money they save now for retirement is worth far more than if they start even a few years later. The idea that you can put it off and “catch up” when you’re older? Basically, it’s a myth, since it’s so very, very hard to make up for missing that early start.

NBC News columnist Bob Sullivan outlines how this works in “When $30k is worth more than $90k.”

The takeaway? Paying off debt is important, but not as important as saving for your future. Opportunities to save for retirement really are “use it or lose it,” and blowing them off could make your future self the real loser.

Please join us around 4:50 p.m. Eastern/1:50 p.m. Pacific for the discussion.

 

Categories : Liz's Blog
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