Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 6 myths about IRAs you can’t afford to believe. Also in the news: New loan modifications from Fannie and Freddie, tax refund loans, and what the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers consumers.

6 Myths About IRAs You Can’t Afford to Believe
IRA mythbusting.

New Loan Modification From Fannie, Freddie: What to Know
Keeping your home out of foreclosure.

Tax Refund Loans Offer Fast Cash for Early Filers
But pay close attention to the fees.

What Is the CFPB and What Does It Offer Consumers?
And why it’s in danger.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

mortgage2Today’s top story: Why you should front-load your IRA in January. Also in the news: Rideshare insurance for drivers, why January is the best time to buy a home, and how fifteen minutes a day can get your finances in order.

Front-Load Your IRA in January for a Bigger Payoff
It’s all about compound interest.

Rideshare Insurance for Drivers: Where to Buy, What It Covers
What Uber and Lyft drivers need to know.

Why January Is the Best Time to Buy a Home
Timing is everything.

Commit to Fifteen Minutes of Financial Literacy a Day to Get Your Finances in Order
Make it a daily habit.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Life InsuranceToday’s top story: Life insurance questions you’re too embarrassed to ask. Also in the news: what to do with an IRA when you leave a job, when a debt collector calls to collect money you don’t owe, and the profitable business of lending to subprime borrowers.

5 Life Insurance Questions You’re Too Embarrassed to Ask
There are no dumb questions!

Why to Do an IRA Rollover When You Leave Your Job
Don’t leave money behind.

When a Collector Calls About a Debt You (Possibly) Don’t Owe
Get all the information you possibly can.

The profitable business of lending to subprime borrowers
Subprime borrowers bring in lots of extra money.

Q&A: Retirement account bears close scrutiny

Dear Liz: About five years ago, I transferred a 401(k) account to an IRA with a financial advisor recommended by a friend. I receive monthly statements, but like most people, I am busy and do not study them, which is my fault. The statements are very confusing, even though I am a college graduate with a business degree. I recently realized that the account has not grown at all, even though it’s invested in stock mutual funds. The Standard & Poor’s 500 has been up about 10% each year on average, so I feel that I should have a much better return. How do I best go about finding out why I am not making any money? Approaching this financial advisor is useless.

Answer: It appears your advisor is worse than useless; he or she is a hazard to your financial health.

A properly diversified retirement portfolio may not grow at exactly the same rate as a stock benchmark such as the S&P 500, but it certainly should have grown significantly in the past five years. It could be that the advisor has been trying to “beat the market” with actively managed funds, which typically fall far short of the mark and do little other than cost investors too much. Or the advisor could be pushing high-cost funds that pay fat commissions and benefit the firm far more than they benefit you.

The Department of Labor recently instituted regulations that should stop many of these shenanigans by requiring advisors giving retirement advice to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own. You shouldn’t wait for those changes to be implemented, though, because you’ve already lost enough ground. Transfer your IRA to a low-cost provider such as Vanguard, Fidelity or T. Rowe Price and consider investing in a target-date retirement fund that will take care of asset allocation and rebalancing for you.

Q&A: Cashing out an IRA to pay off credit card debt

Dear Liz: I owe about $49,000 on my credit cards and now have the money to pay them off in full. Should I? Or should I slowly pay them in large amounts?

Answer:
There’s typically no reason to delay paying off credit card debt. Carrying balances costs you money and doesn’t help your credit scores. You’ll see the fastest improvement if you pay them off in one fell swoop.

The only excuse for delaying would be if this windfall comes from a retirement fund. Cashing out a 401(k) account or IRA to pay off debt is not wise, since you’ll trigger huge taxes and penalties. Add in the future tax-deferred compounding you lose and the total cost is far more than you’ll save in interest.

Q&A: IRA maintenance fees

Dear Liz: My son has an IRA at his credit union. He puts in small amounts when he can. Recently they lowered the interest rate and started charging a $25 yearly maintenance fee, which now is taking all the interest back. Is this legal?

Answer: Yes. It’s also a good reason to move the account elsewhere.

Your son’s retirement account was shrinking in real terms even before the fee ate up all his interest. Even though rates are now on the rise, they’re still lower than inflation, which means the money’s buying power is being eroded every day.

Your son needs to invest in stocks if he wants his savings to grow faster than inflation. A few discount brokerages, including ETrade, Fidelity and TD Ameritrade, have no account minimums or annual fees.

Your son also should consider making automatic contributions to his retirement account. This is known as “paying yourself first,” and it ensures that those contributions actually get made. Waiting until he sees what’s left over is paying himself last, and the result will be a much smaller retirement fund than he’s likely to need.

Q&A: 401(k) followup

Dear Liz: Your reply about what to do with a 401(k) after someone leaves a job was off base, in my opinion.

You advised the questioner to leave the 401(k) with the former employer until it could be rolled over to a new 401(k) with a new employer. Wouldn’t it be better to roll over the old 401(k) to an IRA? An IRA offers more control and better investment options than a 401(k).

Answer: More is not necessarily better. Some people appreciate the chance to diversify their investments by using a rollover IRA. Many others, however, have no need for thousands of investment options and in fact could be paralyzed by so many choices.

The investment options available for IRAs also can be more expensive than what’s typically available in large company plans. These 401(k)s often offer institutional funds with low expense ratios that are unavailable to retail investors.

Finally, 401(k)s have better protection from creditors than IRAs if the worker is sued or files for bankruptcy, although that won’t be an issue for the vast majority of savers.

People can protect an unlimited amount of money in a 401(k), while IRA protection is limited to $1,245,475.

Keeping an account with an old employer, or rolling it over to a new one, won’t be the right solution for everyone. But neither is an IRA rollover—despite what brokerage houses that profit from IRA rollovers may tell you.

Q&A: Rolling 401(k) into an IRA

Dear Liz: I’m leaving my job later this month and am trying to decide what to do with my 401(k) account. Some of my friends say to leave it where it is, and others say to roll it into a traditional individual retirement account or Roth IRA. Which is best?

Answer: You can’t roll a 401(k) directly into a Roth IRA. You would first need to roll it into a traditional IRA, then convert that to a Roth and pay the (often considerable) tax bill.

But let’s back up a bit. There are few reasons you might want to leave the money where it is, if you’re happy with your employer’s plan. Many large-company plans offer access to low-cost institutional funds that are cheaper than what you might find as a retail customer with an IRA.

Money in a 401(k) also has unlimited protection from creditors in case you’re ever sued or wind up filing for bankruptcy. When the money is in an IRA, the protection is typically limited to $1 million.

If you’re not happy with your old employer’s plan, you could transfer the account to your new employer’s plan if that’s allowed. If not, you can roll the 401(k) into an IRA, but choose your IRA provider carefully.

You’ll want access to a good array of low-cost mutual funds or exchange traded funds (ETFs). The costs you pay to invest make a huge difference in how much you eventually accumulate, so it’s important to keep those expenses down.

If you want help managing the money, many discount brokerages offer access to financial planners and some, including Vanguard and Charles Schwab, offer low-cost digital investment advice services. The services, also known as “robo-advisors,” use computer algorithms to invest and monitor your portfolio.

You’ll want to arrange a direct rollover, in which the money is transferred from your 401(k) account into the new IRA.

Avoid an indirect rollover, in which the 401(k) company sends a check to you. You would have 60 days to get the money into an IRA, but you’d have to come up with the cash to cover the 20% that’s withheld in such transfers. You would get that cash back when you file your taxes, but it’s an unnecessary hassle you can avoid with a direct rollover.

Before you decide to convert an IRA to a Roth, consult a tax professional.

Conversions can make sense if you expect to be in the same or higher tax bracket in retirement, which is often the case with young investors, and you can tap some account other than the IRA to pay the income taxes. But these can be complex calculations, so you should run your plan past an expert.

Q&A: IRA contributions and tax deductions

Dear Liz: I am changing jobs because of a layoff. I contributed to my former employer’s 401(k) to the extent possible. My new employer also offers a 401(k), but I won’t be eligible for a year.

I want to use an IRA in the meantime. I do not understand how I should answer the question on the tax form about whether my employer offers a retirement plan when I am determining how much of my IRA contribution I can deduct. My employer does, obviously, but I can’t participate yet. Advice, please?

Answer: You’re smart to continue your retirement savings while you wait to become eligible for the new employer’s 401(k). Missing even one year of contributions could cost you tens of thousands of dollars in lost retirement income.

When you’re not covered by an employer plan, all of your contribution to an IRA is typically deductible.

When you are covered, your contribution’s deductibility is subject to income limits. In 2015, the ability to deduct an IRA contribution phases out between modified adjusted gross incomes of $61,000 to $71,000 for singles and $98,000 to $118,000 for married couples filing jointly.

To be considered covered by an employer plan, you have to be an active participant, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. That means money has to be put into your account by you or your employer or both.

Here’s the twist: You’re considered covered for the whole tax year if you participated in a plan during any part of that year. So the IRS will consider you an active participant for 2015 because you were contributing to your former employer’s plan for part of this year.

If you start contributing to your new employer’s plan when you become eligible next year, you’ll be considered covered for 2016 as well.

You could decide not to contribute to the new employer’s plan until 2017 to preserve your IRA’s deductibility, but it probably makes more sense to start contributing to the new plan to get both the tax break and any match.

If your contribution to an IRA isn’t deductible, consider making a contribution to a Roth IRA instead.

In retirement, withdrawals from a regular IRA will be subject to income taxes while withdrawals from a Roth IRA will be tax free. In 2015, your ability to contribute to a Roth phases out between modified gross incomes of $116,000 to $131,000 if you’re single and $183,000 to $193,000 if you’re married.

Q&A: Retirement savings for freelancers

Dear Liz: I am a freelancer. I don’t consider myself a small-business owner, just someone who gets the work done on time and gets paid. I max out my IRA every year, but would like to save more in a tax-advantaged account.

I checked out SEP and SIMPLE IRAs, but they don’t have a Roth option. Am I eligible to start an Individual 401(k)? What administrative duties would be involved? I pay self-employment tax and my clients send me 1099s, not W2s.

Answer: You may not consider yourself a small-business owner, but that’s essentially what you are. And small-business owners should have tax pros to help them answer questions like this, since you have so many options.

As a sole proprietor, you should be able to set up a solo or individual 401(k) account. That would allow you to make either pre- or after-tax “employee” contributions of up to $18,000 in 2015 — plus an additional $6,000 if you’re 50 or older.

As your own employer, you can contribute an additional 25% of your net earnings (a contribution that would be deductible as a business expense). Your total contribution, employee plus employer, can’t exceed $53,000 in 2015.

Individual 401(k)s are somewhat more complicated to set up and administer than Simplified Employee Pensions (SEPs) or Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees (SIMPLEs). But many discount brokerages are eager to help you with the paperwork and have low or no set-up costs.

You have many other ways as a self-employed person to reduce your taxes, but the rules can be complicated. A certified public accountant or an enrolled agent can help advise you of your options. You can get referrals to tax professionals from the American Assn. of CPAs at http://www.aicpa.org and the National Assn. of Enrolled Agents at http://www.naea.org.