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Dear Liz: My credit score just dropped more than 100 points within 45 days. The only thing I can think of that might have caused it is a $46 medical bill that was paid by my flexible spending account. I have a confirmation that the bill was paid, but for some reason the bill went to a collection agency. How do I get my credit score back to 828? I just recently moved and need a good credit rating for numerous reasons, especially purchasing a home and a new car. I was just turned down for a credit card from the bank that holds my mortgage. I tried dealing with the original medical office that received my payment, but they said I have to talk to the collection agency.
Answer: Check first to see if the collection account is actually on your credit reports. Go to http://www.annualcreditreport.com, the only site that offers you free, federally mandated annual access to your credit files at the three major credit bureaus. Other sites may advertise “free” credit reports, but they often come with strings attached such as requirements that you sign up for credit monitoring. Sites that offer free scores typically aren’t providing the FICO scores that most lenders use.
If the collection account isn’t on your reports, something else may have caused the score plunge. Consider buying at least one of your FICO scores from MyFico.com, which will give you an explanation of why your score isn’t higher.
If you find the collection account on your records, however, you need to go back to the medical billing office and insist that someone fix this, said Gerri Detweiler, a credit expert for Credit.com.
“The bill did not magically turn up in collections,” Detweiler said. “Someone made a mistake and since it is their office that was the source of the mistake, they need to fix it.”
Detweiler recommends sending a certified letter explaining that the office has damaged your credit reports and that if someone doesn’t fix the mistake immediately, you will be talking to an attorney about a credit damage lawsuit.
“If the medical office placed it for collections, they can pull it back from collections,” Detweiler said. “It sounds like they are being lazy by refusing to help.”
If the office balks for any reason, you can follow up with an attorney (you can get referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Advocates at http://www.naca.net). You also can send a certified letter to the collection agency explaining the mistake and insisting it be removed from your credit reports.
You should mention in the letter that you’re trying to get a mortgage and a car loan and that if you’re unsuccessful because of this error, you’ll be talking with a consumer law attorney. It would be helpful to include proof of the mistake, Detweiler said. In many cases, the collection agency will simply delete the erroneous information rather than face getting sued.
“They may not want to bother with it since it’s such a small amount and not worth risking a lawsuit over,” Detweiler said.
Dear Liz: My former employer is offering the one-time opportunity to receive the value of my pension benefit as a lump-sum payment. The other option is to leave the money where it is and get a guaranteed monthly check from a single life annuity when I reach retirement age. I am 40 and single, and I have been investing regularly in a 401(k) since graduating from college. I have minimal debt aside from a car payment. When does it make financial sense to take a lump sum now instead of an annuity check later?
Answer: Theoretically, you often could do better taking a lump sum and investing it rather than waiting for a payoff in retirement. That assumes that you invest wisely, that the markets cooperate, that you don’t pay too much in investing expenses and that you don’t do anything foolish, like raid the funds early.
That’s assuming a lot. Another factor to consider is that the annuity is designed to continue until you die. It’s a kind of “longevity insurance” that can help you pay your bills if you live a long life.
Some financial advisors will encourage you to take the lump sum, since they may be paid more if you invest it with them. Consider consulting instead a fee-only financial planner who charges by the hour — in other words, someone who doesn’t have a dog in this particular fight. The planner can walk you through the math of comparing a lump sum to a later annuity and help you understand the consequences of both paths. This is a big enough decision that it’s worth paying a few hundred bucks to get some expert advice.
Dear Liz: My wife and I are trying to sell our home, which has been our primary residence for six years. I am very concerned about the $500,000 capital gains exclusion. As I understand it, the exclusion would mean we wouldn’t have to pay taxes on our home sale profit. But we are confused about this exemption being tied to the “Bush tax cuts” that could expire Dec. 31. If we sell our home after that, could we lose the exemption?
Answer: No. The law creating a capital gains exemption for home sales went into effect May 6, 1997. It’s not tied to the tax cuts approved during President George W. Bush’s tenure that are set to expire at the end of the year.
So people who live in a home for at least two of the previous five years will still be able to avoid paying capital gains on their first $250,000 of home sale profit (or $500,000 for a married couple).
Another tax you likely won’t have to pay is a new 3.8% levy on what’s called “net investment income.” Some emails circulating on the Internet falsely claim that the tax, which is scheduled to kick in Jan. 1, is a real estate sales tax. In reality, it’s a potential tax on home sale profits that exceed the capital gains exemption limit, as well as on other so-called unearned income, including investment and rental income.
If your home sale profit doesn’t exceed the capital gains exemption limit, you won’t owe the new tax. If your profit does exceed the limit, the excess amount would be added to your adjusted gross incomes to determine whether you’d have to pay it. The 3.8% tax would be levied only on people whose adjusted gross incomes are more than $200,000 for singles and $250,000 for married couples.
Dear Liz: I just turned 65 and have left my job for a part-time position. My 401(k) is being transferred to a new investment company that I’ve never heard about before. Their fees seem to be lower. Is there a website where I can compare different firms?
Answer: There is. BrightScope at http://www.brightscope.com analyzes and rates the 401(k) plans of more than 46,000 companies. The ratings take into account total plan cost, investment options and the company match, among other factors. You find the ratings by entering the name of your employer, rather than that of the 401(k) manager.
If you investigate and decide you’re not comfortable with the new investment manager, you should have the option of rolling your account into an IRA, since you’ve left your old job.
Dear Liz: I have read tons of books on finance and debt repayment, but I’m having trouble deciding what to do next. My husband and I are 52. He receives a monthly disability income, and I work two days a week. We still have about $105,000 left before our mortgage is paid off. We also owe about $7,000 in credit card debt and $5,500 in overdraft charges.
Should I concentrate solely on paying off debt, including the mortgage? Should we modestly renovate our 20-year-old home because after six kids, it is in need of a little TLC? We could downsize, but I’m somewhat emotionally attached to this house, and downsizing would still mean renovating to get the house in shape to sell. At the same time, we’d like to start a small business in our town. It wouldn’t be a huge investment of money, but it’s an outlay nonetheless. I don’t really want to wait five or 10 years to have to do this because it would mean income for one of our children who needs it and sometimes has to rely on us financially. How should I focus?
Answer: You didn’t say a word about retirement savings, but that should be a priority for most people.
If you don’t make a lot of money, Social Security is designed to replace 40% to 50% of your earnings. (The more you make, the less Social Security will replace, on the assumption that you’ve had more opportunity to save.) But most people, of any income level, would have trouble adjusting to living solely on their Social Security checks.
You can estimate your future benefit checks by using the Social Security Administration’s calculator at http://www.ssa.gov/estimator. Your results will be based on your actual earnings. Then you can use the AARP calculator (in the “work and retirement” section of the website) to figure out how much you need to save to have a comfortable retirement. You may not be able to reach that goal, but you should at least try to put aside something to improve your future life.
You don’t need to be in a rush to pay off your mortgage, but you should target that credit card debt and that shocking amount of overdraft charges. You also should know that renovations rarely pay for themselves when you’re ready to sell a home. At best, you typically get back 80 cents for every dollar you spend. A better approach is to make some cosmetic fixes that don’t cost a lot, such as new paint, clean windows and freshened-up landscaping.
As for opening a store, understand that small businesses can take a while to get off the ground. If you don’t have adequate savings or access to a line of credit, the business could fail and take your investment with it. The Small Business Administration at http://www.sba.gov has resources and Small Business Development Centers to help you understand what lies ahead. Do your research before you begin, and consider holding off at least until your toxic debts are repaid.
Finally, you didn’t explain why your child needs your money. If he or she is still a minor, that’s one thing. If he or she is an adult and not disabled in some way, however, then the parental dole needs to stop. It doesn’t sound like you and your husband are adequately providing for your futures. Your kids need to know they have to provide for their own.
Dear Liz: You’ve written about how helpful it can be to have “savings buckets” or separate savings accounts earmarked for different goals such as vacations, property tax payments and so on. I have been trying to do this myself, but every bank I find charges so much in fees that it would cost more money than I would save. Either that, or they tie the savings accounts to a “free” checking account that has a high minimum balance. Can you please pass along any information about free savings accounts that have no minimum balance? I cannot use Internet banks because I cannot deposit cash when I have $5 or $10 in my pocket that I would take to the bank.
Answer: Actually, you can. Internet banks can be linked to your checking account at a brick-and-mortar bank. You can take your money to the bank, then transfer it to one of your savings accounts at the Internet bank. Unlike traditional banks, Internet banks such as ING Direct, Ally and FNBO don’t have balance minimums or monthly fees. You can set up several savings accounts without paying extra fees.
You still need a low-cost checking account, of course. You should be able to find one at a local credit union.
Dear Liz: My husband and I are wondering whether it is time to file for bankruptcy. We have about $20,000 in credit card debt, largely because of a home addition and remodeling project my husband began five years ago. It has been much more costly and time consuming than he anticipated and is not even close to being finished. That prevents us from being able to refinance, which would free up money to pay our debt.
A mortgage broker recently suggested we apply for a home equity line to get enough cash for materials and labor to finish this project. We pay our mortgage and two car loans on time and make at least minimum payments on the cards.
My husband’s health has been declining, making it very difficult for him to do physical work on this project, and one of our kids has had two surgeries in the last few years, so there have been a lot of medical bills as well. How should we proceed?
Answer: You’re having trouble managing the debt you already have, so it’s definitely risky take on more. On the other hand, if you have enough home equity to get a line of credit, that could be a path out of this mess.
First, though, make 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 card balance of $20,000 isn’t by itself insurmountable, depending on your income, but the fact that you’re not paying much more than the minimums on your cards is a huge red flag — as are those medical bills.
The lawyer can review your situation and let you know whether bankruptcy is even a reasonable option. Each state’s laws differ, so you need to consult an expert.
If you decide instead to take out the home equity line, make sure you hire a competent and well-recommended contractor to finish what your husband started. The last thing you need is for someone else to botch the job.
Dear Liz: As an avid reader for years I have never felt as compelled to write as I did after reading your column regarding college financing. I disagree that college financial aid is based primarily on income or that “typically [parents are required to] contribute less than 6% of eligible assets.”
We filed a Free Application for Federal Student Aid for our daughter, and our expected family contribution was calculated at $43,000. The school offered my daughter just $2,000 in work study, at a university with a $38,917 annual tuition. Our combined income is $175,000 and our liquid savings (not including retirement accounts) is $145,000.
We could pay 6% of our income (about $12,000) or 6% of income plus savings ($19,000) per year without taking loans, but not $38,000. I have attended several “paying for college” seminars and found their estimated contributions quite sugar-coated compared with the reality.
Rather than paying 6%, is the reality 25% of our income? Please let me know if we have done something wrong, and how to rectify it.
Answer: The 6% limit on eligible assets is not a cap on how much you’ll have to pay for college. As the original column said, income weighs more heavily in financial aid calculations than assets, and your income is high.
The federal financial aid formula assumes families with high earnings have more disposable income to pay for college than lower-earning families. The formula also assumes high-income families have had ample opportunities to save for college, whether or not they actually have.
You could use the net price calculator on the college’s website to see whether your liquid savings are having an effect on your expected family contribution. At some schools, using savings to pay down a mortgage or other debt could result in a lower expected contribution.
But you still might not get aid, even if you could move the needle on your expected contribution. Many colleges “gap” their students by not supplying enough aid to meet all their needs. And while some private colleges offer merit (rather than need-based) scholarships to attract the children of wealthier parents, top-tier schools tend not to, because they know they can attract excellent candidates without such help, said Lynn O’Shaughnessy, author of “The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price.”
Even if your family doesn’t have financial need according to the formula, your daughter is still eligible for federal student loans of as much as $5,500 in her freshman year. Federal student loans are flexible debt with fixed interest rates and many repayment options, so they shouldn’t be feared, especially in reasonable amounts. If, however, you would have to borrow much more, and that borrowing would interfere with your plans for retirement or other financial goals, you probably can’t afford this school and need to start looking for colleges you can afford.
Dear Liz: You write about it not being a good idea in many cases to pay off your mortgage, but does it make sense to do so to reduce savings so that we can be in a better position to help our high school junior get financial aid for college in a year? We also have a 529 and some investments and are savers.
Answer: Your income matters far more to financial aid calculations than your savings, said Lynn O’Shaughnessy, author of “The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price (2nd Edition).” Another important factor is how many children you have in college at the same time. If you have a high income and only one child in college, you may not get much or any help, regardless of how your assets are arranged.
Many schools ignore home equity when figuring financial need, however, so it might be worth running some numbers. You can do that by using the net price calculators included on every college website. Pick the schools your junior might want to attend and run two scenarios on each calculator: one with your current financial situation and another in which you’ve paid off your mortgage with your savings.
Many parents are overly worried about how their savings will affect potential aid, O’Shaughnessy said. Parental assets, including 529 accounts, receive favorable treatment in financial aid formulas. Your retirement assets aren’t included in the federal formula at all, and your non-retirement assets are somewhat shielded as well thanks to an “asset protection allowance.” The older you are, the more of an asset protection allowance you get. The allowance will be somewhere around $45,000 for a married couple in their late 40s, the typical age for college parents. For those over 65, the allowance is $71,000. Beyond that, you’re typically asked to contribute less than 6% of eligible assets toward your offspring’s education each year.
Dear Liz: I want to stop contributing to my 401(k). How do I cancel it and withdraw my funds?
Answer: You can stop contributing to most workplace retirement funds by contacting your human resources department. You typically won’t be able to withdraw the money, however, unless you can prove a hardship or you leave your job.
You should think long and hard before you discontinue your contributions, in any case. For many workers, contributing to a 401(k) is their best shot at a comfortable retirement. You may be unsettled by volatile investment markets now, but over time a diversified mixture of stocks and bonds should give you the returns you’ll need to overcome inflation and have a reasonable nest egg.
Not contributing to your 401(k) could mean giving up free money in the form of a company match and could trigger a larger tax bill, since your contributions usually are tax-deductible. Money saved within retirement accounts, including 401(k)s and IRAs, is also protected from creditors should you ever be sued or have to file for bankruptcy.
If you’re disgruntled with your plan because you think the fees are too high, ask your employer to look for a more reasonable-priced option. Now that 401(k) administrators must fully disclose their fees, many companies will be looking for better deals.