Friday’s need-to-know money news

help-parents-manage-moneyToday’s top story: What retailers don’t want you to know about Black Friday. Also in the news: What to know about tax breaks for disabled individuals, how managing your money is like losing weight, and three retirement tips your not thinking about.

4 Things Retailers Don’t Want You to Know About Black Friday
You might not be getting the best deals.

What to Know About Tax Breaks for Disabled Individuals
Taking advantage of deductions.

How Managing Your Finances Is Like Losing Weight
One day at a time.

3 retirement tips you’re not thinking about
Tips that fly under the radar.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

321562-data-breachesToday’s top story: Starbucks is the latest hacker’s delight. Also in the news: Getting control over your spending, advice that could ruin your retirement, and money fears that could sabotage your net worth.

Reports: Hackers Targeting Starbucks Mobile Users
How to protect your caffeine fix.

3 Tips for Getting Control Over Your Spending
Reining it in.

This Popular Financial Advice Could Ruin Your Retirement
Why dying broke is a bad idea.

6 Fear-Driven Money Moves That Sabotage Your Net Worth
Coping with financial anxiety.

5 Ways to Mitigate the Financial Downside of a Disability
Reducing money stress.

Q&A: Surviving on Social Security Disability

Dear Liz: I’ve been on disability for over 10 years, and I currently receive $1,527 a month in Social Security Disability Insurance. My rent starting in March will be $1,400. I’m not opposed to moving, but after checking literally thousands of listings, I found that what I’m paying is not unusual for my area. I’m living on savings now. I’d like to have a job but am hard-pressed to find work. What should I do?

Answer: You don’t have to do anything if you have enough savings to last the rest of your life. Assuming that’s not the case, you need to do something to dramatically lower your cost of living.

You may qualify for housing assistance. You can use federal government sites such as or to explore your options, or search for the name of your community and “rental assistance programs.”

You may discover that your low income is still too high for the available programs or that there’s a massive waiting list. If that’s the case, you still have options.
If your disabilities allow, you could earn low or even free rent by working as an apartment manager, a companion to an elderly person, a babysitter for a family with young children or a caretaker for a home or estate.

If your apartment is in a desirable area, you may be able to rent it out a few days a month on Airbnb, Homeaway or another vacation rental site to offset your cost. (Check with your landlord first.)

You could look for a roommate or other shared housing in your community, or consider moving to a less expensive area. You may need to move only a few miles to find a more affordable place, or you may have to consider transferring to a different city or state.

If you’re willing to be truly mobile, you could do what some retirees on limited incomes do and live full-time in a recreational vehicle. Some get jobs as camp hosts or other campground workers in exchange for a free site.

In general, you shouldn’t pay more than about 30% of your gross income for housing. Limiting your rent to 25% is even better, since it will give you more wiggle room to afford the rest of your life.

Q&A: Social Security disability insurance and survivor benefits

Dear Liz: My first wife died six years ago at age 60. I was 52 and we had been married 27 years. My wife was on Social Security disability for 15 years before her death. My only dealing with Social Security after her death was to cancel her payments. I received no benefits of any kind. I am now remarried. Were there any Social Security benefits that I failed to request? Is there any effect on my future retirement?

Answer: You may have been eligible for a one-time payment of $255, but that’s likely all.

We’ll assume your wife was receiving Social Security Disability Insurance payments, which are disability checks paid to workers who have enough work credits in the Social Security system. SSDI is different from Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, a need-based federal program for low-income individuals who are disabled, blind or over the age of 65. Survivor benefits aren’t available under SSI, but they are under SSDI.

The rules for SSDI survivor benefits are similar to those under regular Social Security. Survivor benefits typically are available starting at age 60. Survivors who are disabled can begin receiving the benefits starting at 50, and survivors at any age can qualify if they’re caring for the deceased person’s child who is under 16. When you remarry before age 60, you can’t claim survivor benefits based on your first wife’s Social Security record unless the subsequent marriage ends in death or divorce.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

crop380w_istock_000009258023xsmall-dbet-ball-and-chainToday’s top story: Becoming debt free and staying that way. Also in the news: How to find the leaks in your budget, six ways to become “rich”, and what to do if you need a credit increase.

How to Become Debt-Free — and Stay That Way
It’s not as impossible as it sounds.

How to Find & Fix Your Budget Leaks
Sealing the money drips.

6 ways to become rich without even trying
Well, maybe a little trying.

Need Some Flexibility? 6 Ways to Increase Your Credit Limit
Proceed with caution.

Disability Benefits: How Social Security Decides If You Deserve Them
Deciphering the formula.

Unexpected ways to save on insurance

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailMost ideas for saving money on insurance are pretty shopworn. You know the advice: Raise your deductible. Get discounts. Shop around.

So I was pretty psyched to hear a Certified Financial Planner talk about less common ways that advisors can save their clients money. CFP Mark Maurer is president and CEO of Low Load Insurance Services, which caters to fee-only planners. Maurer recently conducted a webinar that covered ways to save money on the big-ticket policies: life, disability and long-term care insurance.

What I learned:

Beware of riders. Two commonly-pushed riders are “waiver of premium” and “return of premium.” Maurer calls these the “undercoating” of the insurance business; in other words, they’re pricey add-ons that may not have the value you’re told.

Premium waivers allow you to stop paying your premiums if you’re disabled, but you typically have to be totally disabled to qualify (unable to work in any occupation, vs. your own occupation, for example). Some policies have the same definition of disability as Social Security, which is notoriously tough to qualify for.

If you’re really concerned about not being able to pay your premiums, then the solution may be disability insurance, Maurer said. Each dollar you’d spend on a DI policy would likely buy you far more insurance than what you’d get from a waiver of premium rider.

Return of premium also sounds good—the idea being that if you don’t use your long-term care policy, your heirs will get back the money you’ve paid in. These riders come with restrictions, too. Typically you have to own your policy at least 10 years and not have made a claim within those 10 years. Any claims thereafter would be deducted from your heir’s payout.

Again, Maurer suggests asking, “What are you really after?” In this case, it’s money for heirs. Buying a permanent life insurance policy likely will offer a better and more certain payout compared to an ROP rider, he said.

Apply the 80/20 rule to long term care insurance. If you’ve ever had a loved one in a nursing home, you know how shockingly expensive custodial care can be. Those who buy long term care insurance often opt for the daily payout amount that will cover either a private or a semi-private room in their area.

Maurer points out, though, that nursing home costs include expenses the patients would be incurring whether or not they were there—expenses like meals and laundry, for example, that typically account for 20% of the total.

So, one way to reduce premiums is to insure for 80% of the costs. Instead of the $255 a day that the average Florida nursing home costs, he suggests, shoot for something like $200 a day…which typically lowers your premium by, guess what, 20%.

Lifetime benefits on disability insurance aren’t a slam dunk. If you have to be disabled, wouldn’t you rather get checks for life rather than having them stop at age 65, when most DI policies cut off?

Well, of course! But like the riders mentioned above, adding lifetime benefits may not give you all the coverage you think you’re getting.

A typical policy will continue 100% of your benefit only if you’re disabled by age 45 and continue to be disabled until age 65, Maurer said. Those disabled after 45 get a smaller benefit, based on a sliding scale that gives you less the older you are when you become disabled. Someone who’s disabled at 58, for example, might get only 35% of his monthly benefit after age 65.

Is that worth premiums that might be 33% higher? Only you can answer that question, but Maurer, who has two disability policies, has decided against adding lifetime benefits to either.

“I didn’t think it was worth the additional premium,” he said.


Friday’s need-to-know money news

Old windmill in the town of Gorinchem. NetherlandsHow to save big bucks when traveling, preparing for back to school shopping, and what mistakes to avoid when managing your 401(k).

5 Coolest Travel Share Websites
Why pay for an overpriced hotel room when you can have the literal run of the house?

9 Money Management Tips for Newly Employed Millennials
Finally making real money is exciting. But finding ways to save it is vital.

Help with Managing Finances for People with Disabilities
Things to take into consideration when taking care of a disabled person’s finances.

2013 Sales Tax Holidays for Back-to-School Shopping
Find out when your state’s holiday is and what purchases will be tax-free.

The Experts: The Biggest 401(k) Mistakes to Avoid
Important tips on how to properly manage your 401(k).

Are too many people on disability?

DisabledThe number of people getting disability checks from the government has skyrocketed in the past three decades. The federal government spends more on cash payments to disabled workers than on food stamps and welfare combined.

This trend has drawn some media scrutiny lately. You may not have time to read everything that’s been written, so here’s an overview:

As jobs for people without college degrees have disappeared, many people who lose their jobs wind up on disability. Planet Money reporter Chana Joffe-Walt says in the NPR piece “Unfit for Work” that “disability has also become a de facto welfare program for people without a lot of education or job skills.” Qualifying for Social Security disability means you get about $13,000 a year, plus you qualify for Medicare, the government health insurance program for the elderly. For many who qualify, that may beat a minimum wage job with no benefits. “Going on disability means, assuming you rely only on those disability payments, you will be poor for the rest of your life. That’s the deal. And it’s a deal 14 million Americans have signed up for.”

The rise in people on disability, however, isn’t unexpected or solely the result of the lousy economy, according to a response to the NPR report by a group of former commissioners of the Social Security Administration, which oversees the disability programs. “The growth that we’ve seen was predicted by actuaries as early as 1994 and is mostly the result of two factors: baby boomers entering their high- disability years, and women entering the workforce in large numbers in the 1970s and 1980s so that more are now ‘insured’ for DI based on their own prior contributions,” the commissioners wrote. The commissioners point out that it’s not easy to get government disability and that most people who apply are denied. “The statutory standard for approval is very strict, and was made even more so in 1996,” the commissioners wrote.

Few people on government disability ever go back to work. Private disability insurers do a better job than the government programs of returning people to the workforce, according to this story in the Wall Street Journal. That shouldn’t be surprising, since qualifying for government disability is typically a lot tougher than the standards you have to meet to trigger private disability insurance payments. That means the folks getting government disability checks are often a lot sicker (in fact, one in five men and one in seven women die within 5 years of being approved for government disability). Private insurers are also, shall we say, eager to get people back to work (or at least off their benefits). Yet the discrepancy seems to offend the Journal, which also decided to blame people on government disability for at least some of our current economic malaise in “Workers stuck on disability stunt economy.”

As a taxpayer, I don’t want to foot the bill for someone who could work but doesn’t. But I’m also leary of attempts to paint government disability programs as a refuge for loafers.

Clearly, this is a complicated–and emotional–issue. You’ll be hearing more about it as Congress struggles with the budget and social safety net programs, so it would be worth spending a little time researching the facts.



“Compassionate review” may lead to student loan discharge

Dear Liz: We have a family member who recently was approved by Social Security for a complete disability claim. This person will never work again but has an outstanding student loan. The lender has a formal mechanism to apply for loan forgiveness, but is refusing to accept medical documentation of the disability. What appeal process is there and how can we force them to act? Do we need to retain legal counsel and incur additional expense to enforce a legal process and achieve loan forgiveness?

Answer: Federal student loans offer a “total and permanent disability discharge” that forgives outstanding education debt. You can find the rules and an application at

The rules for private student loans, however, vary by lender. Four lenders — Sallie Mae, New York Higher Education Services Corp., Discover and Wells Fargo — offer a discharge for total and permanent disability that is similar to the federal one, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the and financial aid sites. The Sallie Mae discharge is also provided on loans made through lenders that market the Sallie Mae loans, such as Commerce Bank, Fifth Third Bank and Regions Bank, Kantrowitz said.

Other lenders do not offer such a discharge, but all have a compassionate review process for their private student loans, he said.

“Borrowers in a difficult financial situation, or their family or other representatives, should contact the lender that holds the loan directly,” Kantrowitz said. “The call center staff are not always familiar with the compassionate review process.”

Lenders are generally more likely to cancel some or all of the debt, or at least reduce the interest rate, in a situation that permanently affects the borrower’s ability to repay, Kantrowitz said. They are less likely to make an adjustment when the loan was cosigned and the cosigner is capable of repaying the debt.

“But it varies,” Kantrowitz said. “I’ve seen some cases in which the borrower was military and killed in action where the lender forgave the loans even though the cosigners were capable of repaying the debt. Another example involved a mother whose daughter dropped dead on an athletic field and the mother’s anguish was palpable in the letter to the lender.”

Debt cancellation comes with another issue: taxes. Forgiven debt is typically treated as taxable income by the IRS. Your family member may be able to avoid the taxes if he or she is insolvent, but a tax professional should be consulted.

Your Social Security questions answered

My column about getting your parents a bigger Social Security check, “More Social Security for mom,”  triggered a boatload of questions from readers–and confirmed what experts had told me, which is that a lot of people seem to be missing out on benefits for which they qualify.

Here are some of the questions that came in via my Facebook page, email and this blog. I’ve edited the questions for clarity and expanded some of my answers. (If you have questions about how Social Security works in general, and its likely future, check out “5 myths about Social Security.”)

Question: I just read your article. My mom and dad lived off his Social Security of approximately $1,600 per month. After he died at age 70 in 1994, my mom, also aged 70, only collected $600 per month from his Social Security. She had been a stay-at-home mom most of her life. Eighteen years later, she is still only receiving a little over $800 a month. How did this happen if she was entitled to his full benefit? Can you suggest help for her?

Answer: You mom definitely should talk with Social Security to see if she’s getting the correct amount. Her survivor benefits would have been reduced if she started them before full retirement age, but that doesn’t appear to be the case here. What might have happened is that they were living on his benefit plus her spousal benefit. When he died, she would have been switched to a survivor benefit that equaled his benefit alone. But it does seem like her benefit would be higher, in that case. She should call Social Security at 1-800-772-1213 and ask them to review her records to make sure she’s getting what she deserves.

Q: If I’m 64 now. If I waited until full retirement age (I’m a housewife with no Social Security benefit for myself) to get half of my husband’s retirement, would it change to his full benefit when he passes? Or will I be stuck with just 1/2 forever?

A: You should be able to step up to 100% of his benefit if he dies after you hit full retirement age (which is 66 for you). I’m not sure if the survivor benefit is affected if you should opt to start your spousal benefit earlier than that. But your spousal benefit would be reduced by up to 30%, so it’s generally worth waiting if you can.

Q: Read your article and enjoyed it but you had nothing for us who unfortunately had to stop work because of our health. I’m 62 and will be drawing my long-term disability till I’m 65 then it will stop. I also draw Social Security disability. How will this effect my Social Security when I reach age 65? Will my Social Security benefit go up? And what is this about drawing my social security but not till I’m 66? My husband is 15 years younger than I, so does that mean I will never be able to draw off of him? Where can I find out all I need to know about all this social security stuff that I just don’t understand? Any information would be greatly appreciated.

A: If you’re 62 now, then your full retirement age is 66, not 65. The full retirement age has gradually been increasing, and it will be 67 for those of us born after 1959. (You can check your full retirement age here.) As far as your Social Security disability benefits, when you hit full retirement age they’ll become your retirement benefits. You won’t need to take any action. You can find more details here.  Spousal benefits won’t be of much use to you, since your husband is so much younger. But starting at age 62, he should qualify for an amount equal to half your benefit if that’s more than his retirement benefit at the time.

Q: I am 60 and work full time. My husband passed 4 years ago at age 59. I thought that I can’t apply for his Social Security until I am 62 because I work.

A: You can get Social Security benefits if you continue to work. However, those benefits may be reduced significantly, or even eliminated, if you apply before your full retirement age. This is because of what’s called the “earnings test.” Basically, you lose $1 in Social Security benefits for every $2 you earn over a certain amount, which in 2012 is $14,680. (You get a break in the year you actually turn your full retirement age: the earnings test reduces your benefit by $1 for every $3 you earn over $38,880.) The earnings test disappears after you reach full retirement age.

If you earn enough money, the earnings test could wipe out any survivor’s benefit. That may be why you were told you should wait. You can apply for reduced survivor’s benefits as early as age 60 (50 if you’re disabled, and there’s no age limit if you have dependent children).

At age 62 you can switch to your own retirement benefit if you want, although your checks will be reduced because you’re getting the money before your full retirement age. Your benefit will be reduced further if you continue to work. That’s why it can make sense to wait until your full retirement age. This area is pretty complex, so it would be worthwhile to talk to an SSA rep.

Q: After my ex died, I applied for Social Security at age 62 1/2. The Social Security specialist I talked to used some formula, adding half of my benefits to half of my deceased husband’s, without giving me an explanation or a choice. I had been a low part-time earner. How can I find out if she acted in my best interest?

A: What I think happened is that the SSA specialist compared your (age-reduced) retirement benefits to the (age-reduced) survivor benefits based on your ex’s record and gave you the larger of the two. But the best way to check may be to call Social Security back and ask if you’re getting the maximum benefit for which you qualify. Also, if you’ve been getting survivor benefits, you may be able to switch to your own benefit at full retirement age, if that’s larger. (It may not be, if you were a low earner and your ex was a higher earner, but it’s worth checking.)

Q: I retired at age 59 on disability. Can I receive full retirement benefits now? I’m 70 now.

A: When you hit full retirement age (which for you would have been 66 years, 10 months), your Social Security disability benefits became retirement benefits. You can read more here, and call Social Security to confirm.

Q: If a person draws a benefit based on a divorced spouse’s earnings record, does the spouse have to be 62 years of age? Or does just the mom have to be 62?

A: Both parties have to be old enough to qualify for at least early retirement benefits, meaning age 62. If the dad in this scenario is old enough to apply for benefits but hasn’t applied, the mom can still do so as long as they’ve been divorced at least two years. Here’s a link to the rules. Remember that applying early permanently reduces your benefit, so it’s often better to wait until your full retirement age if you can.

Q: My sister is 63 and lives in North Carolina. She was on Social Security disability and lost all of her work benefits, including any insurance benefits. She received a small insurance claim for a car accident and the federal government is stating that because she received this settlement and still collected the SS benefit, she now owes them $13,000 and cannot collect another dime until that is all paid off. She lives on a very small amount of money each month, she is a diabetic and cannot get her medicine. Do you have any suggestions? Thanks so much

A: I’m not an expert in disability benefits, but I believe windfalls and earnings can reduce what you get. She may want to talk to a lawyer who specializes in Social Security disability to see what her options are. She can start with North Carolina’s Legal Aid.

Q: Someone I know is retiring after working for most of her life as a public service employee where they didn’t take Social Security out of their paychecks. For the last 15 years, though, she has been working in a retail job and has paid in her 40 hours into Social Security. She is 68 years old, is she eligible for Social security benefits?

A: If she’s got her 40 credits (not hours–you earn credits based on earnings and years worked, and you typically need to work 10 years to qualify for Social Security retirement benefits), then she should be eligible for some kind of check from Social Security. The amount will be based on her 35 highest-earning years, though, so she might have a lot of zero-earning years because she wasn’t covered by Social Security in her previous job. Also, since her previous job didn’t pay into Social Security, she’s probably eligible for some kind of benefit from that which also may reduce her Social Security benefits. She needs to call the SSA and find out what she might be entitled to. Click here to learn more about credits.

Q: My dad died before he started to receive Social Security. He was receiving disability due to cancer. My mom is disabled and receiving disability benefits, but has not yet reach full retirement age. Is it still possible for her to receive my dad’s Social Security benefit?

A: If your mom is disabled, she probably was eligible for reduced survivor benefits as early as age 50. (The age limit is 60 otherwise, if there are no dependent children at home.) Your mom should call Social Security and find out.

Q: My husband has been dead two years the 15th of this month. I work a full time job and make about $39,000 a year. Can I claim the $1,160 monthly benefit he used to get? I will be 64 in August.

A: You can’t get 100% of his full benefit if you claim it before your own full retirement age, but you should be able to get a reduced amount. The monthly benefit you could get depend on your age and the type of benefit you qualify for. You can call start your research here.

Q: My mom is retired and recently widowed, is she entitled to any of my father’s social security? They were married 49 years.

A: She may be able to receive up to 100% of his benefit, depending on her age and other factors. She wouldn’t be entitled to both a survivor’s benefit and her own retirement benefit, however. You can read more about the rules here.