Q&A: Saving for retirement also means planning for the tax hit

Dear Liz: I’m 40. We own our house and have a young daughter. Through my current employer, I’m able to contribute to a regular 401(k) and also a Roth 401(k) retirement account. My company matches 3% if we contribute a total of 6% or more of our salaries. Are there any reasons I should contribute to both my 401(k) and Roth, or should I contribute only to my Roth? My salary and bonus is around $80,000 and I have about $150,000 in my 401(k) and about $30,000 in my Roth. Thanks very much for your time.

Answer: A Roth contribution is essentially a bet that your tax rate in retirement will be the same or higher than it is currently. You’re giving up a tax break now, because Roth contributions aren’t deductible, to get one later, because Roth withdrawals in retirement are tax free.

Most retirees see their tax rates drop in retirement, so they’re better off contributing to a regular 401(k) and getting the tax deduction sooner rather than later. The exceptions tend to be wealthier people and those who are good savers. The latter can find themselves with so much in their retirement accounts that their required minimum distributions — the withdrawals people must take from most retirement accounts after they’re 70½ — push them into higher tax brackets.

That’s why many financial planners suggest their clients put money in different tax “buckets” so they’re better able to control their tax bills in retirement. Those buckets might include regular retirement savings, Roth accounts and perhaps taxable accounts as well. Roths have the added advantage of not having required minimum distributions, so unneeded money can be passed along to your daughter.

Given that you’re slightly behind on retirement savings — Fidelity Investments recommends you have three times your salary saved by age 40 — you might want to put most of your contributions into the regular 401(k) because the tax break will make it easier to save. You can hedge your bets by putting some money into the Roth 401(k), but not the majority of your contributions.

Q&A: How to protect your financial data in the wake of the Equifax breach

Dear Liz: Do I have the right to notify the credit bureaus that I do not want any of my financial information stored in their files? They don’t seem to be that secure. I rarely borrow money and the three financial institutions I deal with have all the data they need to lend me money if I need some. I do finance a car on occasion, because if they want to lend me money at less than 1%, why not?

Answer: The short answer is no, you have no right to stop credit bureaus from collecting information about you. You also can’t prevent them from selling that information or keeping it in inadequately secured databases.

One thing you can do is to freeze your credit reports at all three bureaus to prevent criminals from using purloined information to open credit accounts in your name. But that will cost you.

The only bureau currently waiving the typical $3 to $10 fee for freezing credit reports is Equifax, the credit bureau whose cybersecurity incident exposed Social Security numbers, dates of birth and other sensitive identifying information for 143 million Americans. The other bureaus, Experian and TransUnion, are still charging those fees.

You’ll have to pay an additional $2 to $10 each time you want to lift those freezes, which you’ll probably need to do if you apply for new insurance, apartments, cellphone service, utilities and, of course, credit. Financial institutions may indeed have plenty of information about you, but probably wouldn’t lend you any money without access to your credit reports or scores. Freezes also are a bit of a hassle because you need to keep track of a personal identification number, or PIN, to lift the freeze.

Just in case you weren’t irritated enough by this state of affairs, understand that freezes won’t stop other types of identity theft, such as someone getting medical care in your name or giving the police your information when they’re arrested. Still, instituting freezes is probably the best response to the most devastating breach yet.

Q&A: Sinking under a heavy debt load? There’s help

Dear Liz: I am trying to get my finances in order and, like many, I am struggling. The majority of my debt comes from student loans, but I also have unsecured debt that is weighing me down. I work for a nonprofit and know I need to contact my lenders to try to enroll in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, but my debt has me completely frozen. Every few months I try to do something and then I end up back where I am now, feeling overwhelmed.

Answer: You’re not alone. Credit counselors often deal with people who are so paralyzed by debt problems they can’t even open their bills. These people bring in sacks of unopened mail to their first appointments with the counselors.

If you haven’t been able to deal with your debt alone, then by all means, get help. A nonprofit credit counselor is an option; you can get referrals from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at www.nfcc.org. A financial planner, a financial coach or even a money-savvy friend also can help you.

If you can force yourself to simply call your student loan servicers — the companies that process the payments on your education debt — you can get the ball rolling. These companies can determine if you’re eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program and help you start on the paperwork.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness can erase the balance of your federal student loans after 10 years of payments if you work in the public sector. To get the maximum benefit, you would need to sign up for an income-based repayment plan and you may need to consolidate your loans. All this involves effort, but if you’re planning to stay in public service, it can be worthwhile.

The Trump administration has proposed ending the forgiveness program for future borrowers. Even if Congress enacts such a change, it should not affect those who have already taken out loans. But you’d still be wise to enroll as soon as possible.

Q&A: How to find out if a car has flood damage

Dear Liz: You’ve been writing recently about how to find a good, cheap used car. Can you write about how to research whether a car has been damaged in a flood?

Answer: Carfax, which provides vehicle history reports, offers a free flood check in the “resources” section of the site’s press center.

Flood-damaged cars that have been totaled by insurance companies are typically sent to auto recyclers for dismantling but some wind up back on the market. These cars are supposed to have salvage titles that make clear their dubious histories, but it’s relatively easy for unscrupulous sellers to register the car in a different, more lenient state that obscures its past. This is known as “title washing.”

Carfax’s service can help you spot the damaged cars, as can your own senses. A car that smells like mold or strong cleaning solution (to cover up the mold) is a bad sign. Carpeting or upholstery that’s obviously newer than the car can indicate it’s been replaced after flood damage. Look in the glove box and under the seats for mud or silt. A sagging headliner on a newer car is another red flag.

A good mechanic can help you spot problems if you’re not sure. If the seller won’t let you take the car to your own mechanic for inspection, don’t buy it.

Q&A: Debt has a habit of hanging around

Dear Liz: Last year my dad had an account he couldn’t pay and it is showing up on his credit report as a closed, charged-off account. As expected, the lender sold it to another company. The new company now also has it listed as an open account in collection on his credit report. How can the same account be listed twice? I thought the second company couldn’t report it.

Answer: That’s not correct. Once the debt was charged off and turned over to collections, it could be reported again as a collection account. If the original account still shows a balance owed or more than one collection shows up for the same debt, however, your dad should definitely dispute it and file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Q&A: Reverse mortgages have gotten safer and cheaper but aren’t for everyone

Dear Liz: I have been making interest-only payments on a home equity line of credit but starting in January the payments will increase to include principle. I would like to do a cash-out refinance of my first mortgage (I owe about $190,000) to pay off the HELOC (on which I owe $140,000).

My home is worth about $600,000, but my debt-to-income ratio is very high, and I’ve been told I won’t be approved.

I have never been late on my mortgage or credit cards, on which I owe about $30,000. I am working very hard on paying off my debt but my income is low, $25,000 a year.
I am 72, a widow and find it hard to land a good paying job like I used to have. I have to settle for what I can get.

My son and his family live with me and pay $900 rent and half of utilities but those payments are not reflected on my taxes.

The advice I am getting so far is to get a reverse mortgage for about a year, to not take any money from it and instead pay down my credit, then after a year try to refinance again. What are your thoughts on reverse mortgages?

Answer: Reverse mortgages have gotten safer and less expensive but they aren’t a good short-term solution for anyone. All mortgages have costs, and it makes little sense to pay to set up a reverse mortgage if you plan to get rid of it a few months later.

Reverse mortgages, for those who don’t know, allow borrowers 62 or over to tap their home equity to get a lump sum, a series of monthly checks or a line of credit. Borrowers don’t have to make payments on these loans, but any debt incurred on a reverse mortgage grows over time and must be paid off when the borrower sells, moves out or dies.

The most common reverse mortgage is the Home Equity Conversion Mortgage, which is insured by the federal government. The HECM loan typically includes upfront and annual mortgage insurance premiums, third party charges, origination fees, interest and servicing fees.

The amount you can borrow is based on your age, prevailing interest rates and the value of your home (the maximum home value considered is $636,150). You’ll find a calculator at www.reversemortgage.org/About/Reverse-Mortgage-Calculator that can help you estimate what you can borrow and the costs.

Normally, people can’t access more than 60% of the borrowed amount in the first year. That’s to prevent them from running through all their equity in a short time. The exception is when the money’s being used to pay off existing loans. You probably would be able to borrow just enough to pay off your current mortgages, but the upfront mortgage insurance premium you would owe would be high: 2.5%, rather than the usual 0.5%.

Another complication is the fact that you have family living with you. You’d need to think through what would happen if you died, had to sell or moved into a nursing home, because that could leave your son and his family homeless if they weren’t able to pay off the mortgage.

A final concern is the fact that you’ve been living beyond your means for quite a while, as shown by the amount of debt you have. Eliminating mortgage payments could help you pay off your remaining debt, but that’s only if you keep your expenses in line with your current income — not what you were able to spend when you had a good job. There’s also no telling how much longer you’ll be able to continue working, which would mean getting by on even less.

Consider meeting with both a nonprofit credit counselor and a bankruptcy attorney to understand your options. You can get referrals from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (www.nfcc.org) and the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys (www.nacba.org), respectively.

Q&A: Tax implications of parents paying off a child’s loans?

Dear Liz: My wife and I co-signed for student loans for our daughter. My daughter made payments on these loans since she graduated from college four years ago. My wife and I just paid off the loan balance, which was $22,000. Is our payment considered a gift to our daughter?

Answer: Yes, but your gift is within the annual exemption limit, so you won’t have to file a gift tax return. You and your wife can each give your daughter $14,000, or a total $28,000, without having to file a return. Gift taxes aren’t owed until the amounts someone gives away above those annual limits exceeds $5.49 million.

Q&A: Why tapping retirement cash early shouldn’t be done lightly

Dear Liz: I’m reaching out on behalf of my father, who does not know how to write emails. He was wondering if he pulls his money out of his IRA, how much will he get charged? Also, how much would he be able to give to his granddaughters without being charged?

Answer: Withdrawals from IRAs and most other retirement accounts are taxable. The tax bill will depend on his tax bracket and whether his contributions were pre-tax (deductible) or after-tax (non-deductible). If he withdraws money before age 59 1/2, he also may face tax penalties. A premature withdrawal can easily trigger a tax bill of 25% to 50%. Once the money is withdrawn, it also loses all the future tax-deferred returns it could have earned.

If he gives the money to his granddaughters, it’s unlikely he would face an additional tax bill. He would be required to file a gift tax return if the amount exceeded $14,000 per recipient in a year, but he would only have to pay gift taxes if the total amount he gives away in his lifetime over that limit exceeds $5.49 million.

Clearly, taking money out of a retirement account is a big deal and something that shouldn’t be done lightly. At the very least, your dad should consult a tax pro who can estimate the bill he’s likely to face. He’d be smart to consult a fee-only financial planner as well so he understands the potential effect this withdrawal could have on his future standard of living.

Q&A: Making sure your free credit report really is free

Dear Liz: Please tell me again how to get my free credit report each year.

Answer: You can get a free annual look at your credit reports from the three major credit bureaus at www.annualcreditreport.com. If you search for “free credit report,” you may wind up at a look-alike site, rather than the federally mandated one. A good clue that you’re on the wrong site will be if you’re asked for a credit card number.

Your free reports don’t include free scores, which are the three-digit numbers lenders and others use to judge your creditworthiness. Your bank or credit card companies may offer free scores, or you can sign up with one of the many sites that offer them. Keep in mind that there are different types of scores, and the one that you’re seeing may not be the same as the ones your lenders use.

Q&A: More advice on how to find a reliable cheap car

Dear Liz: I have repaired my own vehicles all my life, and I wanted to add a bit to your response to the person in Chapter 13 bankruptcy who needs another car after paying $1,500 cash each for two junkers. You are correct that a $3,000 car is likely to be more reliable, but I would stress heavily that there are no guarantees on cars at that price range even if you have a mechanic check the vehicle.

My advice on getting a reliable cheap vehicle is to first identify what make and model vehicle you want, then spend several weeks on the model-specific forums on the Internet reading the Q&As. There are wide variations in even the same models of the same year. One might use an engine that has a serious defect, but others do not have that defect.

The mistake most used-car buyers make who are looking for a cheap car is to be too impatient. They go for the first thing that’s listed at their price range with no regard to what make and model it is. It is simply not possible to research the skeletons in the closet of unfamiliar models in the hour in between viewing the listing online then running out to see it. Figure out the model in advance, then be patient.

Answer: Thanks for offering your advice. Even people who have plenty of money often don’t spend enough time researching their options and wind up regretting a purchase or paying too much.