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.

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Q&A: What to do about heavy credit card debt

Dear Liz: I have a lot of credit card debt and am just able to make minimum payments. I feel like after doing this for four years now that I am not getting ahead. I will be 61 this summer and don’t have much saved for retirement. My rent keeps going up along with other expenses. I have an 11-year-old car that is in need of maintenance but don’t have the funds to do it. My question is, what would happen if I walk away from the credit card debt? Will I be facing garnishment?

Answer: Yes, you could be sued and face wage garnishment if you simply stopped paying your debts.

You could consider a debt management plan offered through a credit counselor, which could lower the interest rates you pay. You can get referrals from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at www.nfcc.org. But you’d be making payments for the next five years or so, when you could be putting that cash toward your retirement.

A Chapter 7 bankruptcy, by contrast, would take a few months and legally erase your credit card debt to give you a fresh start. Bankruptcy is often the best of bad options when you can’t make progress on your debts. Consider meeting with both a credit counselor and a bankruptcy attorney so you understand all your options.

Q&A: Professional investment management fees

Dear Liz: I have an IRA with over $100,000 at a discount brokerage. I had it in a target date fund. Due to market downturns, I got nervous and was convinced to put my investment into the brokerage’s portfolio advisory services with additional fees coming to $1,600 per year. In general, is it wise to change investments to these more professional services?

Answer: If professional management keeps you from bailing out of your investments when markets decline, then paying a higher fee may be justified. But the higher the fees you pay, the less money you can accumulate. For example, your IRA could grow to more than $600,000 over 30 years if you net a 6% return. If your fees are one percentage point higher, and you net just 5%, you’d end up with less than $450,000.

Some discount brokers, including Schwab, Fidelity and Vanguard, now offer a low-cost “robo” option that invests your money using computer algorithms. These robo options don’t offer the highly customized investment portfolios that some other services provide, but they come at a much lower cost — typically 0.3% to 0.4%. A few, including Vanguard and Betterment, offer access to financial advisors.

Q&A: Fees can do serious damage to your retirement

Dear Liz: When I changed jobs, I rolled my 401(k) account into an IRA and took it to a financial planner. He invested it initially and now has a management company watching it. So now I am paying quarterly fees to him, the management company and the IRA custodian. The fees average about $2,000 a year. I am thinking about moving my account to my current 401(k), which has lower fees.

I feel like the planner has me in way too many investments, and my returns aren’t great. My account is up about $40,000 on a $122,000 initial investment. I will be 60 this year and plan on working for another six-plus years.

Answer: If your employer accepts IRA transfers — and many do — then rolling the money into your current 401(k) could be a great way to go.

Many 401(k) plans offer ultra-low-cost investment options that aren’t available to retail investors. Many also offer target date funds that would take care of diversifying your investments while making sure the mix gets more conservative as you get closer to retirement.

Right now you’re paying above-average fees to get below-average performance. If you had put your money into a low-cost option such as the Vanguard Balanced Index Fund five years ago, your account would now be worth nearly $190,000. The expense ratio for the balanced fund can be as low as 0.08%, compared with the 1.23% you’re paying now. (Your actual cost probably is higher; you didn’t include the expense ratios of the underlying investments in your account.)

Fees matter a lot. Higher fees depress returns and can increase your chance of running short of money in retirement.

At the same time, the years just before and after retirement are crucial because you’ll be making a lot of decisions with major consequences (such as when to claim Social Security and how much to withdraw from retirement accounts). Paying 1% in fees could make sense if you were getting comprehensive financial planning advice that addressed your retirement planning needs as well as other aspects of your finances, such as insurance, taxes and estate planning. If all you’re paying for is investment management, though, you can get that for a lot less.

If your employer doesn’t accept transfers or doesn’t have low-cost options, you could consider transferring your IRA to a custodian that offers low-cost computerized investment services. These include Betterment, Wealthfront, Vanguard Personal Advisor Services and Schwab Intelligent Portfolios, among others. The all-in fee for their services, including expense ratios of underlying investments, is typically less than 0.5%.

If you do opt for less expensive investment management, you still should consider hiring a fee-only financial planner before you retire to review your plan. You can find fee-only planners who charge by the hour at Garrett Planning Network.

Q&A: How to avoid triggering gift taxes

Dear Liz: Is it possible to make student loan payments directly toward our son’s lender without them being considered a gift and thereby subject to the gift tax after a certain amount?

Answer: No. But gift taxes aren’t an issue for the vast majority of Americans. You and your spouse would have to give away more than $10 million for gift taxes to be triggered.

You don’t even have to file a gift tax return if the amounts you give are under certain annual limits. The annual gift exclusion in 2017 allows you to give away $14,000 per recipient without having to file a gift tax return, so the two of you could pay $28,000 of your child’s loans without informing the IRS.

Only the amounts above $14,000 count toward the gift tax, and gift tax is owed only when those excess gifts total more than a certain amount, which in 2017 was $5.49 million.

When gift taxes are an issue, there are some workarounds. In addition to the annual gift tax exclusion amounts, people can pay an unlimited amount of someone else’s medical expenses or tuition without triggering gift taxes — as long as the payments are made directly to providers. In other words, the tuition checks need to be made out to the college bursar, not to the child or to another creditor. Paying student loans isn’t included in that unlimited exemption.

Q&A: Using two-factor authentication

Dear Liz: In a recent column, you discussed the importance of setting up two-factor authentication to protect financial accounts. My concern about using this method is that if my cellphone is lost or not working, I won’t be able to access my accounts when necessary. What do you think about this?

Answer: Two-factor authentication typically combines the use of a password with a code texted to your phone. Most providers have backup options, including one-time-use codes and toll-free numbers to call if you run into trouble.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

FICO-score-calculation-300x281Today’s top story: Applying for the wrong credit cards can make bad credit worse. Also in the news: Store reward programs worthwhileness, preschoolers and personal finance, and the #1 cause of financial stress in your state.

Applying for the Wrong Credit Cards Can Just Make Bad Credit Worse
Be selective.

Are Store Rewards Programs Worthwhile?
Only if you’ll actually use the benefits.

Should Preschoolers Be Taught Personal Finance?
It’s never too early to start.

This is the No. 1 cause of financial stress in your state
Odds are pretty good your state is worried about debt.

Q&A: Social Security survivors benefits

Dear Liz: My husband and I were married after dating for over four years, but he died suddenly on our honeymoon. When I got home, I was told by our local Social Security office that I did not qualify for survivors benefits because we were not married long enough. I am going to be 66 next month and he was already receiving Social Security benefits. People have been advising me to look into getting this marriage benefit, even by contacting my Congressional representative, since I don’t plan to apply for my own benefit until I’m 70 and could really use the survivor benefit now.

Answer: Social Security isn’t likely to help you cope with your devastating loss. The rule that couples have to be married for at least nine months is meant to prevent deathbed marriages designed just to give the survivor benefits.

There are some exceptions to the nine-month rule, such as when the death was accidental or in the line of duty for service members, or if you had a child together. The exceptions are outlined on the Social Security’s site: https://www.ssa.gov/OP_Home/cfr20/404/404-0335.htm

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

scamToday’s top story: The red flags of a toxic online loan. Also in the news: What to do when you can’t get enough financial aid, why 43% of Millennials have bad credit, and 10 questions to help start getting your financial life in order.

5 Red Flags of a Toxic Online Loan
Who are you really borrowing from?

Can’t Get Enough Financial Aid? Here’s What to Do
Take a deep breath.

43% of Millennials Have Bad Credit, TransUnion Says
Subprime scores.

Get Your Financial Life In Order By Answering These 10 Questions
Taking the first steps.