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pound-foolish-170x281You may not agree with everything Helaine Olen writes in her new book, “Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry.” That’s particularly true if you’re an uncritical fan of one of the personal finance gurus she skewers so effectively.

For the sake of your wallet, you should read the book anyway. She’s a friend of mine, so I’m biased, but the following sources are not:

  • The New York Times, which called “Pound Foolish” one of the rare “realistic and readable” books about personal finance.
  • The Washington Post’s Michelle Singletary, who says the book “provides a cautionary tale that you need to read.”
  • The Economist says it’s an “excellent book, a contemptuous exposé of the American personal-finance industry.”

Helaine articulates what too many of us in the financial media took too long to figure out: that your money problems may not be entirely your own fault. Most Americans have been fighting economic headwinds for decades. Incomes have stagnated or even fallen while costs for education and health care spiral relentless upward. People can work for years to build up economic security only to have it wiped out when they lose their jobs, get divorced, suffer disability or illness or simply retire at the wrong time.

Here’s how the New York Times reviewer summarized it:

What most advice fails to factor in — and what we often choose to overlook ourselves — are the costly realities of things like job loss, protracted unemployment, medical bankruptcy and high-interest debt. Even when we do save, plummeting interest rates, falling home prices and other economic events imperil our best efforts.

Yet some of the best-known financial advice-givers make millions pretending that anyone can save his or her way to financial security. Meanwhile, legions of commissioned salespeople posing as advisors fleece people out of billions more, selling overpriced insurance and investment products to people desperate for financial guarantees.

I’m not saying, as some commentators have, that saving is pointless or impossible on modest incomes. That just plays into the hands of those who contend that financial issues are entirely a matter of personal responsibility, since they (and I) can provide plenty of examples of people who have saved prodigious amounts on small incomes, even in high-cost areas.

What the “personal responsibility” folks are missing is how easy it is to lose those savings in the 21st century, especially if you weren’t born to the right parents or are otherwise are on the wrong side of the growing wealth and income disparities.

Simply put, there are limits to how much personal finance advice or “financial literacy” efforts can help people who don’t make much money, don’t have a lot of education or aren’t just plain lucky in the lottery of life.

Personal responsibility alone isn’t enough; we need some corporate responsibility and a government capable of enforcing regulations that ensure fair play. We need affordable, available health insurance to protect people from catastrophic medical bills; we need a strong Social Security system to prevent us from ending our days in poverty. Our kids need affordable educations so more of them have a shot at staying in the middle class without drowning themselves in student loan debt.

In short, we need to stop acting like we’re in this alone. We should continue contributing to our 401(k)s, but we—and those who advise us—shouldn’t pretend that’s all we need to do to ensure our financial futures.

Categories : Liz's Blog
Comments (3)

Insurance better than 401(k)?

Jan 14, 2013 | | Comments (1)

Dear Liz: Recently, someone from an insurance company proposed that I stop investing through my 401(k) at work and instead invest in his insurance company contract with after-tax dollars. He claims the funds would be guaranteed so that I would never lose principal, although there would be a cap on how much I could make in any given year. His claim is that it is better to forgo the tax deduction I would get from my 401(k) contributions so that I can take the money out of this contract tax-free in 20 or 30 years. I think I am too old for this program (I am 61 now) but I thought it might be appropriate for my daughter when she enters the workforce in a few years.

Answer: You may have been pitched an equity-indexed annuity. These are extremely complex investments that should not be purchased from someone who misrepresents how they work and who encourages you to forgo better methods of saving for retirement.

Withdrawals from annuities are not tax-free. You would not have to pay income tax on the portion of the withdrawal that represents your initial contributions, but any gain would be taxable at regular income tax rates.

Furthermore, most people fall into a lower tax bracket in retirement. That makes the tax break offered by 401(k) contributions especially valuable, because you’re getting the deduction when your tax rate is higher and paying the tax when your rate is lower.

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which regulates securities firms, has warned that most investors consider equity-indexed annuities and other annuity products “only after they make the maximum contribution to their 401(k) and other before-tax retirement plans.”

Even then, you probably have better ways to save. Contributions to a Roth IRA would not be tax-deductible, but withdrawals in retirement would be tax-free. If you’re able to save still more, you could contribute to a regular, taxable brokerage account and hold your investments at least one year to qualify for long-term capital gains rates, which are lower than regular income tax rates.

The other possibility is that the insurance salesman was pitching a life insurance policy that would allow you to take out a tax-free loan. Although life insurance is sometimes pitched as a retirement savings vehicle, it’s an expensive way to go. In general, you should buy life insurance only if you need life insurance. To help ensure a policy is suitable for your situation, you should take it to a fee-only financial planner—one who does not make commissions from selling investments–for review.

In any case, you don’t want to do business with someone suggests you stop funding your workplace retirement plan, and you certainly don’t want to refer him to family members. What you should do instead is pick up the phone and report him to your state insurance department.

Categories : Q&A, Retirement
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Dear Liz: I have an excellent credit rating, a steady job and an interest-only mortgage of $480,000 on a home now worth $400,000. I also owe $52,000 on an adjustable-rate home equity line of credit. In 2015, the interest-only portion of my loan ends and the principal payments will start, driving my payment to more than $4,000 a month. I have tried for the last four years to work with the lender to achieve some manner of stability, but to no avail. I have been told that my first loan has been sold to an outside investor. Is there any hope for me? I like my house.

Answer: If you haven’t already done so, you should make an appointment with a housing counselor approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. You can find referrals at http://www.hud.gov, or you can call the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau at (855) 411-CFPB (2372) to be connected to a HUD-approved housing counselor.

Housing counselors can evaluate your situation and offer guidance about any programs that might be available to help you refinance or modify this loan. You also should pick up a copy of attorney Stephen Elias’ book, “The Foreclosure Survival Guide,” so you can better understand this process and whether it’s worth fighting to save your home.

HUD-approved housing counselors offer free or low-cost help. Beware of anyone who promises to help you for a fat fee, because it’s probably a scam.

Comments (5)

Old check is probably worthless

Jan 14, 2013 | | Comments (5)

Dear Liz: Twelve years ago I hired a moving company. I must have overpaid them, because in January 2001 I received a refund check for $235. I misplaced the check and didn’t find it until 2003. Ever since then I have made a number of phone calls asking for a replacement. All my calls were to no avail. Can you help?

Answer: No. You typically have six months to cash a check. If you miss that time frame, you can ask the issuer for a new check, but it is usually under no obligation to accommodate you. Trying to deposit an old check can often result in a “returned check” fee from your bank when the check is stopped or returned unpaid.

Categories : Banking, Q&A
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CollegeOld folks can offer wisdom about many things, but you might not want to trust them when it comes to 21st century economics.

I’m hearing too many older people espouse the view that college degrees aren’t as valuable these days because more people have them. They need an Econ 101 review. It’s true that the price or value of something may drop if the supply increases—but only if the demand for that thing does not increase as well.

In the case of college degrees, demand has risen dramatically. Part of that is because so many jobs that didn’t require degrees have been made obsolete by technology or been outsourced overseas. (When Grandpa says he knows lots of people who made good livings without post-high-school training, ask him what they did—and if those factories and union jobs still exist.)

But employers are pickier as well, using college degrees as a screening device for jobs that in the past didn’t require them.

It’s true that incomes for college graduates dropped during recent economic hard times and unemployment rose. But the situation was a lot worse for folks without a college degree, according to a Pew Charitable Trust report released yesterday.

Back to supply and demand: The demand for post-secondary educations helped push up the net cost of college during the 2000s. The College Board says the net price of college tuition (the sticker price minus financial aid) rose 75% between 2002 and 2011.

But now demand seems to be softening, according to a Moody’s Investor Service report, thanks to a tough economy and a smaller pool of high school students. As a result, more schools are freezing tuition costs or at least holding down the increases and offering more financial aid. That’s good news for those heading off to college in coming years.

None of this means a college degree is worth any price. Too many families are overdosing on debt to get educations they really can’t afford. Getting a good value also requires college students to pick their majors carefully, since some degrees are worth a lot more than others.

But college degrees are and will remain all but essential in the 21st century if you want to get ahead financial, or even just remain in the middle class. That wasn’t true in Grandpa’s day, but it’s true now.

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Dear Liz: I have a first mortgage with a current balance of $32,000 at 5.625% interest. This will be paid off in about 24 months, based on regular payments plus $200 a month extra I am paying on principal. I have a home equity line of credit with a balance of $200,000 at 3% interest on which I am paying interest only ($490) monthly with an occasional principal payment when I can afford it. Between the two mortgages I am making payments of about $1,950 per month.

I am about to retire and want to reduce my payments to a more manageable amount. I do not intend to move in the near future. Income is $145,000 annually now but will be reduced to about $76,000 annually upon retirement. Should I just hold on, pay off the first mortgage and then begin making interest plus principal payments on the credit line? Or should I refinance both mortgages now into a 30-year fixed mortgage?

Answer: Ideally, you would retire your mortgage debt before you retire from your job. That’s not possible in your case, so you should focus on making sure this debt doesn’t wreck your retirement.

A spike in interest rates could play havoc with your budget. Mortgage interest rates have been extremely low for some time, but that won’t continue indefinitely. Inflation may pick up as the economy improves, which means that 3% variable rate on your home equity line of credit could march considerably higher.

Consider locking in today’s low mortgage rates with a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage. You could get an even lower rate on a 15-year mortgage, but the payment would be significantly higher — about $1,600 a month on a $232,000 mortgage, compared with about $1,000 a month for the 30-year loan. You may prefer the flexibility of the 30-year loan, which would still allow you to make extra principal payments to pay off the loan faster without locking you into a higher monthly payment.

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Huge debts? Where to find help

Jan 07, 2013 | | Comments (1)

Dear Liz: My husband and I are in a huge amount of debt. I understand that there are nonprofit agencies that can sit down with us and help us develop repayment plans and strategies. How do I find a reputable one?

Answer: Contact the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at (800) 388-2227 for a referral to a legitimate, accredited, nonprofit credit counseling agency in your area. A counselor can review your financial situation, help you with budgeting and see whether you’re a candidate for a debt management plan, which would allow you to pay off your credit card debt over time, perhaps at a lower interest rate.

You also should consider making an appointment with an experienced bankruptcy attorney. You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at http://www.nacba.org. A credit counselor may try to steer you away from bankruptcy, whereas an attorney can let you know if it might be a better option.

Unfortunately, many people wait too long before they contact a credit counselor. They may be approved for a debt management plan but find themselves unable to stick with the plan long enough to pay off their debt. In other words, they continue to struggle with debt that they ultimately can’t pay. Understanding all your options, including bankruptcy, can help you make a better choice about what to do next.

Comments (1)

Dear Liz: I recently heard that not having a land-line home phone number can hurt your credit score because it indicates instability. Is this true? I, like many people, use only my cellphone and no longer have a land line.

Answer: The answers to most credit scoring questions are complex because the formulas are complex. In this case, though, the answer is simple. What kind of phone you use is not a factor in your credit scores.

Credit scores are based on the information in your credit reports, which typically doesn’t include information from telephone companies unless you’re applying for a new account (in which case a credit inquiry may appear) or seriously delinquent in paying your bills (in which case a collection account may appear).

Lenders typically use other criteria in addition to your credit score to evaluate your application. Those criteria may include your income, your debt-to-income ratio, how long you’ve worked for your current employer and other information that’s not part of the credit scoring formulas. So it’s conceivable a lender might prefer people who have land lines, but with so many people using cellphones only, that lender would certainly be behind the times.

Categories : Credit Scoring, Q&A
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Capital gains boost income tax bracket

Jan 03, 2013 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: You recently wrote about potential capital gains on the sale of a property that was a gift from the parents (“Gifting home creates unnecessary tax bill“). The husband of the seller made $75,000 a year in income and the seller didn’t work. Isn’t it true that if his taxable income remains in the 15% bracket (taxable income of $70,700 or less), they would owe no capital gains tax, at least as it stands for 2012? With standard deductions, he would fall into the 15% bracket.

Answer: It’s true that the capital gains tax rate is zero for people in the 10% and 15% income tax brackets. But the amount of capital gains is added to your other income to determine your bracket.

“The $75,000 of current income plus $85,000 of gain would put them well into the 25% tax bracket and subject to the 15% capital gain rate,” said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for tax research firm CCH. “A standard deduction of $11,900 plus a couple of exemptions of $3,800 each for 2012 could make part of the $85,000 gain taxed at a 0% rate, but the bulk of it would be taxed at the 15% capital gain rate.”

Categories : Estate planning, Q&A, Taxes
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