Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: What free college might actually look like. Also in the news: How to get rid of credit card debt by opening another card, how to fix credit report errors, and how to figure out the size of your next stimulus check.

What Free College Might Actually Look Like
Separating fact from fiction.

One Way to Zap Credit Card Debt? Open Another Credit Card
Yes, getting a balance transfer credit card means yet another piece of plastic — only this kind may let you pay down debt over time at 0% interest.

Your Credit Report May Be Wrong — Here’s What to Do About It
Complaints about credit report issues surged in 2020. Here’s how to verify the data that makes up your credit score.

Figure Out the Size of Your Next Stimulus Check With These Calculators
See what you’ll get in the next round of checks.

Worry about the right thing with estate taxes

Death and taxes may be the only certainties in life, but death taxes are only a remote possibility for most people. The vast majority of Americans won’t ever have or give away enough to owe estate or gift taxes.

Far more people could be affected if a tax break that benefits heirs is eliminated. While campaigning for president, Joe Biden proposed doing away with something called the “step-up in basis” that allows people to minimize or avoid capital gains taxes on inherited assets. But no legislation has been proposed yet, and such a change could have a tough time getting approved by a divided Congress.

In my latest for the Associated Press, why it’s time to think about the hard stuff and plan ahead.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: No flood insurance? Here’s how to get help. Also in the news: A new episode of the Smart Money podcast about saving on gas and 401(k) limits, 3 ways to get socially distanced tax prep help this year, and how to protect yourself from Facebook and Instagram ad scams.

No Flood Insurance? Here’s How to Get Help
You may be able to get assistance from the federal government or other sources.

Smart Money Podcast: Saving at the Pump and 401(k) limits
Tips on saving at the pump.

3 Ways to Get Socially Distanced Tax Prep This Year

Protect Yourself From Facebook and Instagram Ad Scams
People are always looking to scam.

Q&A: Retirement saving after layoff

Dear Liz: My husband and I are both in our early 50s and have been contributing the full amount to each of our 401(k) plans, plus the catch-up amounts since we turned 50. I was laid off in February 2020 and had only contributed $3,000. I had assumed I’d get a new job quickly, but as of now, I still have not. Fortunately, my husband still has a good job and has been able to make his full contribution plus the catch-up. Is there any way we can increase my contribution to retirement savings at this point? Can I fund an IRA if I already contributed to a 401(k)? We don’t want to lose any more ground.

Answer: The fact that you were both contributing the maximum amount — $26,000 each, or $52,000 total — is impressive. That, plus the fact that you’re still able to contribute given your unemployment, indicates your household income could affect your ability to deduct your IRA contributions.

You can still make the contributions, however. Anyone with earned income can contribute as much as $6,000 to an IRA (or $7,000 if you’re 50 or older) even if they’re covered by a workplace plan such as a 401(k). There used to be an age limit for IRA contributions, but that’s been eliminated. You have to earn at least as much as you contribute in the form of wages, salary or self-employment income. If you only earned $4,000 in 2020, for example, that’s the maximum you could contribute to an IRA.

Unemployment insurance doesn’t count as compensation, so you can’t use that — or interest, dividends, pension payments and other such nonwage income — to determine your contributions.

If you were covered by a workplace plan at any point in 2020, the ability to deduct your contribution phases out for modified adjusted gross incomes between $104,000 and $124,000 for married couples filing jointly for 2020. (The phaseout range rises to $105,000 to $125,000 for 2021.)

If you can’t deduct your contribution, consider putting the money instead into a Roth IRA if possible. You don’t get an upfront tax deduction, but withdrawals are tax-free in retirement. The ability to contribute to a Roth IRA starts to phase out with a modified gross income of $196,000 in 2020 (and $198,000 in 2021).

If your income is too high and you don’t already have a large IRA, you could use the “back door Roth” maneuver by contributing to a regular IRA and then converting it to a Roth, since there are no income limits on conversions. (You have to pay taxes on any pretax money that’s converted this way, which is why this might not be an ideal approach for those with big IRAs.)

You also can open up a taxable brokerage account and invest an unlimited amount of money. Again, there’s no upfront deduction, but investments held for at least a year can qualify for favorable capital gains tax rates.

Investing in accounts with different tax treatments is a good idea in general, since it can help you better control your tax bill in retirement.

Q&A: How to keep your lightly used credit cards from closing

Dear Liz: I had a credit card that didn’t expire until 2024 but the issuer closed my account because it hadn’t been used in a few years. During these difficult times, I didn’t want to get into a lot of debt by using too many cards. The issuer should have let me know this could happen so that I could have used it at least once a year.

Answer: You’re smart not to want to charge your way into debt. If you want to keep a credit card from being closed for inactivity, though, you need to use it — and probably more than once a year.

One way to do so is to charge a recurring cost, such as a streaming video subscription, to the card. You can set up the payment to be automatic as well. You should still review the account’s transactions every month to ensure everything is working as planned and no fraudulent charges have been made. But otherwise, this approach is a low-effort way to keep open your access to credit.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Smart ways to negotiate your salary in an uncertain economy. Also in the news: Student loan scams are on the rise, 5 things to consider when picking a college in the COVID-19 era, and how to claim retroactive unemployment benefits.

Smart Ways to Negotiate Your Salary in an Uncertain Economy
If you’re seeking a raise, it’s important to read the room and understand a few different strategies. Research and preparation are both key.

If a Stranger Offers You Student Loan Forgiveness, Hang Up
Biden student loan forgiveness and stimulus forgiveness scams are on the rise. Here’s how to protect yourself.

5 Things to Consider When Picking a College in the COVID-19 Era
When choosing a college, consider how it’s met the challenges of the pandemic.

How to Claim Retroactive Unemployment Benefits
The Department of Labor has expanded eligibility.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Why you should stop waiting to sell your home. Also in the news: How to find a Black financial advisor, sharing renters insurance with a roommate, and why you need to start claiming crypto on your taxes.

Why You Should Stop Waiting to Sell Your Home
Now maybe a good time to sell your home. First, decide whether to sell before or after finding your next place.

How to Find a Black Financial Advisor
There are a few ways, but understanding the “why” may be just as important as the “how.”

Can I Share Renters Insurance With My Roommate?
Many companies permit it, but there’s no guarantee it’ll save you money in the long run.

Why You Need to Start Claiming Crypto on Your Taxes
The IRS wants to know.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 5 IRA mistakes you may be making. Also in the news: 8 reasons why an RV is your spring break best friend, the Black homeownership gap, and how to keep your expiring travel reward points.

5 IRA Mistakes You May Be Making
It’s OK. We all make mistakes. But here’s how to course-correct if you find your IRA is off track.

8 Reasons Why an RV Is Your Spring Break Best Friend
For COVID-era travel during spring break, take a hard look at renting an RV.

The Black Homeownership Gap: A Fair Housing Leader’s Solutions
Down payment assistance and housing laws are highlighted by the president and CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance.

How To Keep Your Expiring Travel Rewards Points
Know the type of card you have.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: The latest trends in home renovations and how to pay for them. Also in the news: 4 tips for starting or restarting a business in tough times, student loan forgiveness scams, and key 2021 financial deadlines to add to your calendar.

The latest trends in home renovations—and how to pay for them
Don’t worry, the open floor plan isn’t dead

4 Tips for Starting or Reinventing a Business in Tough Times
Entrepreneurs should adapt to market changes, fix problems that bother them and tweak existing strategies.

If a stranger offers you student loan forgiveness, hang up
Scammers are everywhere.

Add These Key 2021 Financial Deadlines to Your Calendar Now
Helpful reminders.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to get the most home insurance help after a winter storm. Also in the news: A new episode of the Smart Money podcast on filing your taxes early and tapping into your home equity, 8 ways to take your credit card rewards to the next level in 2021, and how to get relief with your federally backed mortgages.

How to Get the Most Home Insurance Help After a Winter Storm
Talking to your insurer and documenting everything will help you manage and recover from serious storm damage.

Smart Money Podcast: Filing Taxes Early and Tapping Home Equity
Why you probably want to file your taxes sooner rather than later.

8 Ways to Take Your Credit Card Rewards to the Next Level in 2021
With some extra steps — like an inventory of your wallet, a chat with your issuer, and a willingness to track and stack — you can squeeze more value from points and miles.

How to Get Relief With Your Federally Backed Mortgages
There’s a new extension.